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Facing the World Alone: New Perspectives on Iran’s Nuclear Negotiations through the Lens of Ehsan Abdipour’s All Alone

July 11, 2024
By 28868

The box office success of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer suggests a strong public interest in the narrativization of scientific and political history. For Elham Hosseini (University of the Western Cape, 2019–20), it reconfirmed the effectiveness of cinematic techniques used in an Iranian film detailing the adverse impact of the Iran nuclear sanctions on the lives of ordinary citizens. This article is adapted from a longer paper written with Miki Flockemann, an extraordinary professor at UWC and Hosseini’s academic supervisor.

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All Alone: The Messenger of Peace is a 2013 Iranian film by Ehsan Abdipour about a boy living near the Bushehr nuclear power plant whose friendship with the son of a Russian engineer is forced to end as the result of the nuclear sanctions against Iran. The film tangibly illustrates the impact of international sanctions on the lives of individuals through the lens of children and highlights perspectives often not directly addressed in the adult world, as the liminal position of preadolescents provides new space for exploring the unacknowledged effects of the sanctions.

On a personal level, the 2023 release of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer triggered in me—an Iranian who closely followed the nuclear talks between 2013 and 2015—immediate recollections of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known more commonly as the Iran Nuclear Deal. In particular, the questions J. Robert Oppenheimer grappled with as a youth about the nature of the universe struck me as paralleling the dilemma faced by the young protagonist in All Alone. In the following, I will examine some of arguments advanced by Iran at the time All Alone was made in the light of new questions raised by Oppenheimer.

Illusion of Control

The connections between Oppenheimer and Iran’s negotiating team need to be clarified at the outset. Obviously, Oppenheimer’s mission to develop the most potent means of mass destruction the world had ever known is distinctively different from the attempts by Iranian negotiators, who included scientists and political representatives, to define the limits of the country’s nuclear program. Yet, one thing they had in common was the illusion of control—either over the results of their research or the outcome of the negotiations—a slippery slope when political interests are involved.

After the atomic bombing of Japan, Oppenheimer experienced a crisis of conscience and tried to warn American politicians against further nuclear development. He was met with hostility from rivals like Lewis Stauss, who supported nuclear development, as described in the Pulitzer prize-winning biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer: “Oppenheimer gave us atomic fire. But then, when he tried to control it, when he sought to make us aware of its terrible dangers, the powers that-be, like Zeus, rose up in anger to punish him” (Bird and Sherwin 2005, 15).

Iran’s second negotiating team, headed by a former foreign minister, meanwhile, made a successful attempt to break the international consensus against Iran by pledging a transparent nuclear program in return for revoking the threat of UN resolutions and the lifting of sanctions. However, the negotiators faced two serious obstacles: one was the presidency of Donald Trump, who ignored almost every international agreement between the US and the world—JCPOA being one of them—and the second was the position of hardliners in Iran, who scorned the team’s apparent naivety in believing what they saw as US false promises and urged the withdrawal from the deal as an act of retaliation—which did not, however, happen.

In this regard, the rise and fall of Oppenheimer, an expert in a specialized field of theoretical physics to whom the US government turned during a time of crisis, can be said to resemble the fate of the Iranian representatives tasked with breaking the impasse in the nuclear negotiations, in that both Oppenheimer and the Iranian team were subjected to false accusations despite having achieved what they were instructed to do.

The Figure of the Child in Iranian Cinema

Child-centered cinema has been a defining characteristic of neorealist filmmaking from the outset. As Deborah Martin (2019, 15) notes, these features typically include “a focus on the poor and working classes, a concern with social inequality, the use of natural actors and on-location shooting.” This aligns with All Alone, as Ranjero, the protagonist, and his young friends have to work to supplement the family income (although he is depicted doing so in a cheerful, entrepreneurial spirit, rather than as a victim of poverty). Shooting the film on location in Bushehr put this remote area of Iran and the struggles faced by the marginalized communities there in the spotlight. And while the youth playing Ranjero was not a “natural” actor, many of the other children in the film were nonprofessional, contributing to a sense of authenticity.

Two Iranian boys walk along a beach near the Bushehr nuclear power plant in a coastal village on the northern coast of the Persian Gulf. Bushehr is Iran’s first and only active nuclear power plant and was fully operational and connected to the national electricity grid in 2011 after a long history of construction delays and political challenges. ©Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images


Martin notes, “where filmmakers wish to denounce injustice or wrong, the child’s gaze is particularly useful, since cinema ‘tends to project into the child a certain ideal of visual neutrality’” (Sophie Dufays, quoted in Martin 2019, 15). What is interesting in the case of All Alone is that the film interjects three scenes from an adult perspective at strategic points in the cinematic narrative to unsettle the “visual neutrality.”

Drawing on Hamid Reza Sadr’s (2002) comments about how depictions of children in the post-revolution cinema of Iran contribute to exposing lived social realities, Anne Patrick Major (2012, 25) notes, “children in Iranian post-revolutionary cinema function empathetically, and by relating to individuals in a way that bypasses national and social belongings, children become a device to produce intercultural meanings.” While this comment refers to the way the spectators empathize with the characters and are thus affectively drawn into the narrative, the “intercultural meaning” generated is also manifested by the way Ranjero and the Russian boy, Oleg, interact with one another despite language barriers.

Major adds, “Sadr goes on to explain that children’s ‘personal troubles tend not to remain personal,’ which implies their existence in the world anterior to a given film is more realistic,” and this is borne out by Ranjero’s incarceration on an Italian ship. The perspectives outlined here thus clarify how “children allow for humanistic empathy despite the presence of national or cultural signifiers that could produce political and ideological readings if inscribed upon an adult,” which can then explain why the effects of nuclear sanctions in Iran are more compellingly presented via a child-centered narrative.

Emmanuel Levinas’ ideas on ethics presented in Totality and Infinity questions the traditional Greek/European notions based on the “ego as the self-conscious knowing subject” (Levinas, quoted in Nojoumian and Nojoumian 2020, 200). Instead, Levinas proposes an ethical system that puts in question the subject’s own ego and as a result is essentially characterized by the other: “one is in a face-to-face relationship with the other, with infinite responsibility” (quoted in Nojoumian and Nojoumian).

Accordingly, the traditional notions of “self,” which ultimately nurture an egotistical subject, are replaced by a concept in which the self is not only defined by and dependent of but also responsible for the other in their very recognition or being. Attempting to further clarify this responsibility, Amir Ali and Amir Hadi Nojoumian explain that children do not feel responsible toward the other out of reciprocity but essentially as the “self’s obligation” (2020, 200), which sees the other as part of the self, thus enabling a relationship between two boys who do not speak each other’s language.

Making the Unseen Visible

What follows is a close analysis of the film All Alone, which helps clarify how children’s portrayal in fiction and film narratives can move beyond stereotypical assumptions and raise questions about the issues that adults find so difficult to approach. There are certain factors that help All Alone express the genuine feelings of children while also engaging effectively with the world of adults, that is, the nuclear negotiations and sanctions. The first is Ranjero’s age: he is an adolescent, about to step into adulthood but still very much in touch with childlike emotions, which puts him in an “in between” position throughout the film.

The second is the character of Olga, one of the engineers working at the Bushehr plant, who becomes the translator between the Oleg and Ranjero and a facilitator of their relationship. In her role as an interpreter of the events of Ranjero’s life to the captain of the ship in Italy where Ranjero was kept in custody as a stowaway, we too are being informed. Yet, as noted by Sadr, because of the affective identification with the child protagonist in a child-centered film, the viewer responds empathetically (like Olga) to the “intercultural meanings” (quoted in Major 2012, 25) of the worldview of Ranjero and Oleg.

Ranjero’s questions about the nuclear talks can be used to address a range of concepts from a child’s perspective. For instance, in “Visible Man or the Culture of Film” (2010), Béla Balzás makes a connection between a child’s point of view and “the secret corners of a room” (quoted in Han and Singer 2021, 4) that are exposed so that the often unseen becomes visible and open to question through the eyes of a child.

In her 1995 novel Ten Is the Age of Darkness, Geta Leseur uses a poignant metaphor to describe the child’s viewpoint as a “forgotten camera in the corner” (quoted in Flockemann 2005, 117), whose presence may not be felt but fulfills its function to observe and record and, in the process, offers an unconscious critique of the adult world (Flockemann 2005, 117). In a much broader sense, Negar Mottahedeh (2005, 342) draws on Sadr to offer a reading of the child figure in Iranian cinematography as an allegory of the restrictions faced by the film industry: “The child can embody spatial positions and emotional states that other filmic characters cannot. The figure of the child, then, allegorically foregrounds the constraints of the film industry under state-guided dictates.”

Challenging the Viewer

Ranjero’s role in the film is to serve as a liminal agent, moving between the children’s and adult worlds to raise new ethical questions regarding Iran’s nuclear program and the controversies surrounding it. His dreams, at the beginning and end of the film, parallel the troubled worldview of the youthful Oppenheimer, which is intriguing in that the physicist’s research can be seen as one source of Ranjero’s anguish. Like the young Oppenheimer, Ranjero is distraught, being stuck on a ship and homesick and crying aloud in his sleep for Heleylah, his hometown. An emotionally immature Ranjero is troubled by visions of a “hidden universe” that he thought he could understand.

What is troubling both Ranjero and Oppenheimer is an apprehension of what is to become of the adult world that, for Ranjero, constitutes “nightmares.” At the end of All Alone we are left with an unanswered question, namely, will Ranjero find a way to overcome the nightmares he has about the future and realize the sweet dreams he hopes for? The open-ended conclusion is deliberately unsettling because Ranjero’s question, posed as a child, offers a challenge to the grown-up viewer.



All Alone: The Messenger of Peace. Directed by Ehan Abdipour, Edris Abdipour (Studio), 2013.

Bird, Kai, and Martin J. Sherwin. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robbert Oppenheimer. Vintage Books, 2005.

Bushati, Angela. “Children and Cinema: Moving Images of Childhood.” European Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3, 2018, pp. 34–39.

Flockemann, Miki. “Mirrors and Windows: Re-Reading South African Girlhoods as Strategies of Selfhood.” Counterpoints, Vol. 245, 2005, pp. 117–32. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42978695.

Han, Yunzi, and Christine Singer. “Transformational Identities of Children within Iranian and South African Fiction Films: Ayneh (The Mirror) and Life Above All.” Open Screens, Vol. 4(1), No. 5, 2021 pp. 1–9. https://doi.org/10.16995/os.40.

Major, Anne Patrick. “Bahman Ghobadi’s Hyphenated Cinema: An Analysis of Hybrid Authorial Strategies and Cinematic Aesthetics.” Master’s thesis, University of Texas at Austin, 2012. https://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/items/f1475305-fd95-4a29-adc2-3c2c02812b3c.

Martin, Deborah. The Child in Contemporary Latin American Cinema. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. https://link.springer.com/book/10.1057/978-1-137-52822-3.

Mottahedeh, Negar. Review of Richard Tapper, ed., The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation, and Identity. Iranian Studies, Vol. 38, No. 2, 2005, pp. 341–44. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4311731

Nojoumian, Amir Ali, and Amir Hadi Nojoumian. “Towards a Poetics of Childhood in Abbas Kiarostami’s Cinema.” In Bernard Wilson and Sharmani Patricia Gabriel, eds., Asian Children’s Literature and Film in a Global Age: Local, National, and Transnational Trajectories. Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, pp. 195-211, https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-981-15-2631-2_10.

Sadr, Hamid Reza. “Children in Contemporary Iranian Cinema: When We Were Children.” In R. Tapper, ed., The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity. I.B. Taurus Publishing, 2002.

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Enhancing Immigrant Integration through Social Connections: An Experimental Study in Sweden

February 7, 2024
By 28006

Olle Hammar’s (Uppsala University, 2020) Sylff Research Grant focused on evaluating a program aimed at promoting social inclusion of immigrants and refugees in Sweden. The project, involving a randomized controlled trial in partnership with an NGO, assessed the impact of contact with natives on immigrants’ social, economic, and cultural integration. Preliminary results suggest potential benefits, including sustained relationships and increased job opportunities for immigrants.

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My project on “Social Networks and Immigrant Integration: Experimental Evidence from Sweden,” conducted together with Mounir Karadja and Akib Khan at Uppsala University, seeks to understand and enhance immigrant integration in Sweden, a country known for its progressive social policies but which is now grappling with the challenges of integrating its growing foreign-born population (Statistics Sweden 2019). The project began with a deep interest in understanding immigrant integration in Sweden. Intrigued by the pivotal role social networks can play, we aim to explore the impact of social interactions between immigrants and native Swedes on the integration process.

The study is conducted in partnership with Nya Kompisbyrån (New Friend Agency), a Swedish nongovernmental organization facilitating informal meetings between immigrants and natives in Sweden. Immigrants, predominantly from low- and middle-income countries, are matched with native Swedes, fostering opportunities for language practice, cultural exchange, and network expansion. Through a randomized controlled trial, we assessed the effectiveness of this program.


Nya Kompisbyrån operations manager Mardin Baban, left, and Mounir Karadja of Uppsala University’s Department of Economics.

The COVID-19 pandemic posed significant challenges to this project, temporarily forcing participants to shift from direct, in-person interactions to digital meetings. Thankfully, solutions to these challenges were facilitated by the SRG, which allowed for the implementation of a more structured and sustainable survey data collection approach.

Background and Methodology

Sweden has experienced a significant influx of immigrants from diverse backgrounds, and their social and economic integration has become a key issue (Statistics Sweden 2019). Our research focuses on evaluating the effectiveness of social networks in facilitating this integration by working closely with Nya Kompisbyrån, one of the largest NGOs of its kind in Sweden.

In this project, we use a randomized controlled field experiment to evaluate a novel program administered by Nya Kompisbyrån.

The methodology is based on the observation that, since more immigrants than natives sign up for this program, not all immigrants can be matched with a native Swede. As such, our evaluation uses a randomization design where two immigrants are selected as potential matches for each native, based on common interests, gender, and age.

One of the immigrants is randomly assigned to meet with the native, while the other is placed in the control group. Individuals in both groups, as well as the participating native Swedes, were surveyed by an external survey company (co-financed by SRG) during the implementation period between October 2022 and September 2023. Using this data and methodology, we are able to assess the causal effects of contact with natives on immigrants’ social, economic, and cultural integration.

While the data collection phase is now finished, which was the aim of the SRG-funded part of the project, our next step will be to analyze the data and assess the final results. Preliminary findings suggest large potential benefits for the participating immigrants. Most matched pairs continue to meet after their first contact, indicating that a large share of matches results in meaningful and sustained relationships. In addition, many of the job-searching participants indicate that they have received a job or internship through their native Swedish contact. The interactions also seemed to facilitate stronger social networks for participating immigrants.

Adapting to COVID-19

The pandemic posed significant challenges to our original plan of studying in-person meetings between the participants. We adapted to these circumstances by shifting to a more sustainable format of long-term survey data collection, which allowed us to continue our research without compromising the integrity of the participants or the depth of our analysis. The project had to be temporarily suspended when COVID-19 made in-person meetings impracticable, but we were able to continue conducting fieldwork thanks to SRG.

The project will potentially have broad implications for Sweden’s approach to immigrant integration. It examines the importance of social connections and cultural exchange in breaking down barriers and fostering a more inclusive society (Allport 1954). The findings will offer valuable insights for policymakers, demonstrating how initiatives promoting direct social interactions between immigrants and natives can enhance the integration process.

Another contribution of this project is its experimental attempt to evaluate an NGO-driven intervention for immigrant integration. Many NGOs are active in the field of integration across the globe and often have innovative approaches based on voluntary participation, as well as low operating costs (Lundberg et al. 2011). In Sweden, the government identifies civil society as an important actor for integration. Yet, despite public and private investments, there is a lack of knowledge on the causal effects of civil society organizations in this domain (Osanami Törngren et al. 2018). As such, this project also contributes to evaluating civil society’ broader role in immigrant integration.

Both Academic and Practical Benefits

This journey has been both challenging and rewarding. Adapting to the unforeseen circumstances posed by the pandemic while maintaining the integrity of our research project was a significant learning experience. We are very grateful for support from the Sylff Association in helping us quickly adapt to these changed circumstances. The SRG funding was instrumental in the success of this project, enabling us to navigate unforeseen obstacles and contribute significantly to the field. It has also allowed me to continue my collaboration with my research colleagues and the NGO, as well as other actors in the area of immigrant integration in Sweden and abroad.

The project has been pre-accepted for publication in the Journal of Development Economics (Hammar, Karadja, and Khan 2023), based on a pre-results review. This, we believe, is a testament to its academic significance and practical relevance. The insights gained from this research will contribute not only to the academic understanding of immigrant integration but also offer practical insights for NGOs and policymakers on the potential of social networks and informal meetings. It strengthens our belief in the power of simple human connections to bridge cultural divides and enhance societal cohesion.

Our next step will be to analyze and disseminate the final results of this project. Going forward, we will further explore the dynamics of immigrant integration in different cultural and societal contexts. Our research also highlights the need for more innovative approaches to policymaking in the realm of migration and integration.


Social integration through coffee?


Allport, G.W. 1954. The Nature of Prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Hammar, O., Karadja, M., and Khan, A. 2023. “Social Networks and Immigrant Integration: Experimental Evidence from Sweden,” Journal of Development Economics, Accepted (Pre-Results Review).

Lundberg, E., Brundin, P., Amnå, E., and Bozzini, E. 2011. “European Civil Societies and the Promotion of Integration: Leading Practices from Sweden, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Italy.” In Social Rights, Active Citizenship and Governance in the EU. Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft.

Osanami Törngren, S., Öberg, K., and Righard, E. 2018. “The Role of Civil Society in the Integration of Newly Arrived Refugees in Sweden.” In Newcomer Integration in Europe: Best Practices and Innovations since 2015.

Statistics Sweden. 2019. “Integration: En beskrivning av läget i Sverige,” Integration 13.

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Credence, Chlorine and Curfew: Doing Ethnography under the Pandemic

July 15, 2021
By 28933

If there is one profound truth about ethnography, it is that intimacy,
and not distancing, is crucial.

(Fine and Abramson 2020, 1)


Sara Nikolić, a 2020 Sylff fellow, has had to conduct ethnographic fieldwork under the coronavirus pandemic. In this candid account of how the challenge affected her, emotionally as well as in terms of the course of her research, Nikolić says the experience reinforced her love of ethnography and her belief that it is not interchangeable with other methods.

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Starting fieldwork and facing the most significant academic endeavour in a young researcher‘s life is probably never easy. Starting fieldwork in your neighbourhood may sound like a good idea—only until the first wave of the doubt to your research site, the ability to set boundaries and juggle the insider perspective engulfs you. However, starting fieldwork in a densely populated large housing estate under the “first wave” of a global pandemic never sounded like a good idea.

“The expected delay in collecting data will abort many ethnographies. COVID-19 and its future viral siblings may deter those who would pursue ambitious field studies”. However, my research is not really that ambitious. So I try. In weeks when the number of infected seem to be declining, when everyone around me is healthy and when I manage to overcome typical postgraduate insecurities, I keep trying.

These lines are a testament to my confrontation with the flagrant fact that it is not entirely up to me—that I have chosen to relinquish control. In that sense, this essay is an attempt to become aware, articulate and accept how the coronavirus pandemic has affected the course of my doctoral research. This essay is an intimate confession about waiting and learning patience rather than about concrete adjustments of urban ethnography methodology to the crisis that has befallen us. In the following lines I will try to reconstruct the pandemic induced research challenges that led me to reinforce my love of ethnography and the value-laden belief that it is not interchangeable with other qualitative methods.

Alterations in a two-storey residential unit in blok 70, New Belgrade. Photo: Dušan Rajić

 Strict curfew introduced by the Serbian Government in March 2020 prohibited people over the age of 65 from leaving the house and occasionally prohibiting younger citizens from leaving their homes for up to 84 hours. When a vibrant and pulsating city dies abruptly, when its citizens’ movement is more restricted than during the bombing, little of the urban life remains for us, researchers of the everydayness, to explore. In the COVID-19 urban landscape of Belgrade—and any other city—intimate, in-person human subject research was (unofficially) prohibited, making ethnography an almost impossible method. Not only did conducting research seem impossible to me at the time, but the very idea of denying the situation we were in deeply disturbed me. The repulsion was so strong that it paralysed me even to dare to approach my neighbours, the rare passers-by who enjoy the spring sun, or the “privileged” individuals who were allowed to walk their dogs, with a request to participate in the research that had nothing to do with our current lifeworlds.

 However, hundreds of photographs, dozens of folders, transcripts, voice recordings, several “smell maps” and a few new acquaintances testify that I have not given up. Nevertheless, for senso-biographic approach and focusing on smell-evoked memories of urban environment that form the backbone of my doctoral research, as well as for the informants’ photographic diaries not to become (only) testaments of life under siege by the virus, I had to wait for the “first wave” to come to an end.

 I don’t know what the smell of my building would be, before this, I would probably say mould from the basement or the smell of cigarettes in the elevator, but all I feel now is chlorine. It smells like a kindergarten. (M, blok 45, female)

 One of my main research interests—self-management in socialist era large housing estates—lurked behind every freshly disinfected staircase. Many buildings’ occupants self-organised into weekly or even daily cleanings to keep the entrances and corridors clean and their families or flatmates safe from the virus. In improvised protective equipment consisting of colourful scarves tied over their faces, rubber gloves and old clothes, armed with their buckets, rags, brooms and mops and the last remaining Domestos or any other chlorine-based disinfectant provided by the municipality, these female troops regained control of the space for the benefit of all. As if taking control of the cleaning schedule, maintaining a routine, following the prescribed steps and performing it together for a moment made the situation outside seem less uncertain.

Bestowing details of these events I recognised as an initiation into the house council simply seemed too intrusive. I hesitated and refused to keep a journal record about self-organized cleaning episodes and to reiterate muffled staircase gossip I overheard during these rites of passage. It almost felt treacherous as in a moment of crisis I perceived my role in the apartment building as a tenant, a neighbour and a girl next door—rather than a cold, rigid and objective researcher.

Therefore, a fellow researcher reading this essay could assume that the research’s explicit part—such as interviews—went better than sketching notes and palpation of the neighbourhood pulse based on informal encounters. A reader could also assume that I, being a girl next door, had no trouble recruiting my neighbours. However, that assumption would be wrong. The fact that I lived close by and was a few minutes’ walk from them, that I was a friendly face they saw on their evening strolls was simply not enough. Nor was the fact that I knew some mutual friends and shared the local references. Lastly, the incentives that I could offer under the Sylff fellowship were irrelevant and insufficient. None of that matters when the danger from an infection is so tangible, and your family members are chronically ill, or you are pregnant or homeschooling your children, or someone close to you has passed away. And on my part, as a vulnerable and empathetic researcher, I could not give up the contacts I built under those trying circumstances and the trust I gained. To this day, I haven’t been able to use some deadline as an argument to recruit new, healthy, childless or carefree informants instead of ones who expressed interest and indicated trust, but their participation was postponed due to objective circumstances.

Ethnographic kit under COVID-19. Photo: Sara Nikolić

As a trained ethnographer, I learned about great heroes who went into the wilderness, who “through toughness and perseverance . . . overcome entry barriers”. I, of course, looked up to them. I too wanted to become a hero who overcame the ethnographic odds.

The reality is that I was anxious, frustrated, and impatient. I envied colleagues who enjoyed moments of privilege where they “finally have time to write”. The rising academic pressure, the “figure-it-out-on-your-own” University policy, the “just send me any chapter you have, and we will count it an exam” helping hand of my professors, the crowdsourced documents that offer solutions for “avoiding in-person interactions by using mediated forms that will achieve similar ends” seemed to conflict with the immersion aspect of ethnography I strived for.

These attempts to stay loyal to the ethnography I believe in bring along many pursuits to establish contact with potential respondents, many cancelled or indefinitely postponed meetings, many unanswered calls and messages, and too many sympathetic shrugs. Moments of elation are quickly followed by ones of letdown and despair. I try to push forward. Sometimes I slip or get lost along the way. Sometimes I try to fix it, reinvent my entry strategy, and rely on snowballing instead of a more organic approach. Seeing that I am only halfway in the process of collecting “the deep data”, I cannot refer to the quality and density of the obtained material.

Working version of the “smell map” of Blok 45, New Belgrade. Source: Sara Nikolić

 We will take a walk outside, in the fresh air and try to grasp your neighbourhood’s smells, and we will both wear masks. It does not interfere with the quality of the recording—I often explain to my potential informants. Smell mapping while wearing (K)N95 masks, however, does not really work. Instead of fleeting but current and vivid neighbourhood smells that we could not detect while wearing masks, during our strolls we frequently evoked childhood memories intertwined with the ubiquitous scents of the area, such as linden blossom or sludge.

Ding dong! The sound of footsteps, the unlocking of doors and clumsy contactless greetings. Just there, I would usually insist on taking off my shoes, as is the epidemiological recommendation and custom in this area. Furthermore, as good hosts, as an expression of respect for the guest, they would insist that I leave the shoes on. After those initial negotiations at the front door, I would get a bottle of alcohol to disinfect my shoes and mobile phone upon entering the apartment. And then, still from a distance, a hand gesture to signal in which direction the toilet is so that I can wash my hands before the interview. When the weather was nice, we would spend visits to the apartment on the balconies or with the windows open, sitting within a reasonable distance.

On a sunny September day, when everything was going at a good pace, the unglamorous and petty disappointment came. It was caused by an informant’s rejection to invite me into his apartment for the final interview, although it was agreed in advance. Of course, I did not let the injured ego peek outside, so I played it cool. However, I was still ashamed of my feelings, of the vanity that flooded me. Why did I take it so personally? Wasn’t I the one who told him he has the right to give up at any moment and set boundaries in which he feels comfortable and safe? How could I not have understood the respect he had for advised physical distance? Have I forgotten that I am not merely a researcher but a possible vector too?

Object elicitation and disinfection in the informant’s apartment. Photo: Sara Nikolić

 Although I do not attach half the importance to this episode today as I did on that September day, it encouraged me to think about how many people passed through my apartment from March to September? Very few, and I knew them all. I trust them. I know how responsible they are, how much they follow all the recommendations, how much they care and how much they are in solidarity with the people around them. Is it possible that I was so upset because I interpreted this man’s responsibility or privacy as distrust? So what if he was distrustful? Don’t we all have the right to be distrustful at a time when we are in danger from an “unknown enemy”, when the media is co-opting military rhetoric, when contradictory information and mutually exclusive recommendations are coming from all sides? Aren’t we, citizens of a country that declared coronavirus “the most ridiculous virus in the world”, and shortly afterwards deprived us of freedom of movement, justifiably distrustful towards anything and anyone? Amidst growing distrust that surrounds us, how can we closely and intimately research something as personal as home, something as inseparable from issues of trust as community relations and self-organization?

 Much as we might adapt our research plans to alternative methods in the current crisis and agree to data-oriented techniques such as structured interviews, we must not forget the importance of the immersive experience and deep hanging out for ethnography. As this crisis helped me rediscover that ethnography is not interchangeable with other qualitative methods, I realised that the pragmatic choice to take time was ideological. The choice that was the only possible one, and the one that I needed—to embrace the vulnerable researcher within me and remain faithful to ethnography at the cost of breaking deadlines and delaying my studies. The choice to advocate for slow science. A science that is not an end in itself, a science that is not cruel and does not require sacrifices or preposterous heroic deeds, a science that does not exploit or endanger the subjects under study. That is science based on questioning and building trust instead of taking it for granted.

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When It Comes to Sustaining Community Relationships, Small Businesses Are Not Small

June 1, 2021
By 28958

In this thought-provoking essay, 2002 Sylff fellow Patrick Kabanda advocates for small businesses like local dry cleaners. These mom-and-pop establishments play an outsized role in the community, says Kabanda, contributing to the well-being and cohesion of people and neighborhoods. But public relief programs have been less than successful at keeping these businesses afloat in the time of COVID-19.

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Small businesses such as dry cleaners keep our communities healthy and sustain the harmony of our public life. But unfortunately, many of them have had to close down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo by Mikes-Photography from Pixabay

Among the many valuable lessons I learned as a music student, besides analyzing how the harmony of meaningful relationships works, was that the dry cleaning expenses for my concert clothing could be tax deductible; by the way, the tax code for artists, at least in the United States, can be complicated to a degree more than many of us would care to know.[1] And so, although it was customary in my native Uganda to iron clothes personally, knowing that my dry cleaning could be tax deductible has, in a way, always been an incentive to visit the dry cleaners—never mind that I’m not that religious about keeping the receipts.

When I moved to the Washington, DC area in 2014 (I never thought I’d stay this long), I kept my routine: one of the first places I searched was where I could do my dry cleaning. As I quickly discovered, from state to state, city to city, town to town, many such small businesses are usually family owned and operated by immigrants. As an immigrant myself, I often strike up conversations with attendants, and to my delight, they often reciprocate, as they are curious to know how I got into music. In terms of social capital, we get to bond in a way that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.

My most recent dry cleaner got to know me so well that whenever I showed up to pick up my clothes, she wouldn’t even need to check my phone number or my name. She would simply press a green buzzer on a machine that appears as if it’s supporting a thick forest of apparel, and my clothes would appear as if by magic from the thicket, well pressed, looking and smelling new. And if there were no other customers in line we confabulated for a while before I paid and left.

Then came COVID.

When the pandemic hit the globe, for months I never needed to go to my dry cleaner, nor did I give it much thought. But when things started to slowly reopen, I thought, “Well, some of those shirts with sweat from Zoom meetings could use a good clean.” So I went to my dry cleaner in early December 2020. But instead of being excited to see my friend, when our eyes met, we both were awash in sadness. For there was a sign in big red letters in front of her shop announcing that the business was closing.

As I tried to make sense of this, my friend said that the landlord couldn’t afford to keep reducing the rent, and with all the customers they’d lost during the pandemic, the dry cleaners had no choice but to close. What about those billions from the Paycheck Protection Program, which, as the pandemic raged, were supposed to keep millions of small businesses afloat?[2] It’s complicated.

There’s word that dozens of large restaurant chains, thanks to the restaurant industry’s lobbying efforts, somehow became eligible for relief that was intended for small businesses. There’s word that the money wasn’t shared evenly, because, as many had suspected from the very beginning, the biggest sums went to a tiny minority of the businesses in need; that is, “a mere 1 percent of the program’s 5.2 million borrowers” seeking over $1 million “received more than a quarter of the $523 billion disbursed.”[3] And there’s word that the haphazard nature in which the rules were poorly designed, coupled with the program’s hasty rollout, was an invitation to fraudsters; indeed, by the end of 2020, the US Justice Department had made “at least 41 criminal complaints in federal court against nearly 60 people, who collectively took $62 million from the Paycheck Protection Program,” as the American journalist Stacy Cowley has reported.[4]

After absorbing all that, I asked my dry cleaner if I could interview her for this story. She was reluctant to talk, because she feared her English wasn’t good enough, not to mention that she was concerned for her privacy. But eventually she agreed on the condition that I wouldn’t use her real name or the name and location of the shop. And so, let’s call her Anna, and her shop Da Capo Dry Cleaners.

Anna, a petite soft-spoken woman who is married and has a son in his late thirties, came to the United States from South Korea in the early 1980s. She got into the dry-cleaning business a few years thereafter. She has worked at Da Capo Dry Cleaners for more than 12 years. Although there’s an older lady who would occasionally come in on Saturdays for about four to five hours to help, Anna worked alone most of the time, all day long. “Nobody bothers me,” said Anna, who rarely, if ever, took a sick day off. It’s happy, responsible work, she added. If items were cleaned off-site, she would check and fix anything that looked amiss; for what kept her happy was to give a customer something nice. “Some people don’t work like me, because they don’t know how I do it,” she said. “I’m a very experienced, long-time cleaner, and if I see something bad, oh my gosh! I don’t know, I have to fix something bad, I have to fix.”

It’s little wonder that when asked what she is going to miss the most, she said it was the people, her customers. “How are you going to miss them,” I asked. “Ha ha ha,” her face beamed. “You know,” she added, as she recounted recent gifts from her customers, and I paraphrase: Some people have brought me cake, some people have given me money—she pulled out a crisp twenty-dollar bill to show me—some person, a candle and chocolate; one person brought a flower, another person yesterday gave me fifty dollars. But the gifts aside, she concluded that the interactions with her customers and their compliments for her meticulous service were irreplaceable.

In terms of public policy, what has been much debated is the need to save these mom-and-pops for the commerce and jobs they sustain. Rightly so. Nevertheless, although these businesses are small, what’s missing is the value of the important relationships they foster in our communities. In the West, where loneliness is taking such a toll to the point that in 2018 the UK government appointed a Minister for Loneliness,[5] there’s especially a need to consider how the closure of small businesses has affected communities since COVID swept the globe.

It’s encouraging that discussions are being held[6] on how the pandemic is impacting mental health.[7] But if we understand that—from health and community to jobs and relationships—these issues are interconnected, helping small businesses is bigger than helping them weather the worst in terms of commerce and job losses. Their contribution to our well-being could mean that they should also be supported on the basis of how they glue neighborhoods together, how they keep communities healthy, and how they sustain the harmony of our public life. That, in a way, could help open up resources and collaborations between and within governmental and nongovernmental agencies to deal with a wide range of challenges, including speedily crafting policies that are less susceptible to exploitation and fraud. It could also encourage continuous “systems thinking,”[8] rigorous interdisciplinary research, and ample cross-cultural analysis.

In New York, where I studied music at Juilliard, a New York Times editorial titled “They Offered Us Comfort and Normalcy. Now They Need Our Help.” concluded as follows: “In the darkest days of the pandemic this year, it was New York’s small businesses—its coffee shops and restaurants, groceries and bakeries—that remained open, serving up comfort and normalcy to millions who sorely needed them. Now they need our help in return.”[9]

Many small businesses across the world—in New York City alone, over 230,000 of them employ roughly 1.3 million people[10]—undoubtedly need our help now. How cities, states, and countries are going to successfully do this will certainly vary from place to place. That help, as in the case of New York, can run from “giving them direct federal aid and access to inexpensive capital” to cutting “onerous red tape” that complicates their work.[11] Also, subsidizing rent for struggling mom-and-pops until they’re back on their feet could be considered from country to country.

As Ray Oldenburg writes in his book The Great Good Place, “third places”—cafés, hair salons, dry cleaners, and the like—are “essential for the health both of our communities and ourselves.”[12] Once we take that argument to heart, we’re more likely to see small businesses not just as businesses, but also as part and parcel of the well-being of our society, especially during a global pandemic. Anna and I couldn’t agree more.

[1] Amy Sohn, “How the Tax Code Hurts Artists,” New York Times, April 1, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/01/opinion/how-the-tax-code-hurts-artists.html.

[2] Stacy Cowley and Ella Koeze, “1 Percent of P.P.P. Borrowers Got over One-Quarter of the Loan Money,” New York Times, December 2, 2020, updated February 1, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/02/business/paycheck-protection-program-coronavirus.html.

[3] Cowley and Koeze.

[4] Stacy Cowley, “Spotting $62 Million in Alleged P.P.P. Fraud Was the Easy Part,” New York Times, August 28, 2020, updated December 2, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/28/business/ppp-small-business-fraud-coronavirus.html.

[5] Ceylan Yeginsu, “U.K. Appoints a Minister for Loneliness,” New York Times, January 17, 2018,

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/17/world/europe/uk-britain-loneliness.html; Grace Birnstengel, “What Has the U.K.’s Minister of Loneliness Done to Date?” Next Avenue, January 17, 2020, https://www.nextavenue.org/uk-minister-of-loneliness/.

[6] Kira M. Newman, “Seven Ways the Pandemic Is Affecting Our Mental Health,” Greater Good Magazine, August 11, 2020, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/seven_ways_the_pandemic_is_affecting_our_mental_health.

[7] Bilal Javed et al., “The Coronavirus (COVID‐19) Pandemic’s Impact on Mental Health,” International Journal of Health Planning and Management 35, no. 5 (2020): 993–96, https://doi.org/10.1002/hpm.3008.

[8] Zeynep Tufekci, “Using ‘Systems Thinking’ to Make Sense of the World, from Pandemics to Politics,” interview by Meghna Chakrabarti, On Point, WBUR 90.9 FM, February 25, 2021, https://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2021/02/25/zeynep-systems-thinking-to-make-sense-of-the-world-from-pandemics-to-politics.

[9] The Editorial Board, “They Offered Us Comfort and Normalcy. Now They Need Our Help.,” New York Times, December 5, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/05/opinion/nyc-small-businesses-covid.html.

[10] The Editorial Board; The Partnership for New York City, “‘NYC Small Business Resource Network’ Launch,” September 30, 2020, https://pfnyc.org/news/nyc-small-business-resource-network-launch/.

[11] The Editorial Board.

[12] Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1999), fourth cover.


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Multi-Dimensional Challenges, Multi-Sectoral Innovations: The Resilience of Common Forest Management in Japan

June 22, 2020
By 26719

Yance Arizona[1] is a 2011 Sylff fellow from the University of Indonesia and currently a PhD candidate at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Using an SRA award, he visited the Osaka University of Tourism in Japan and the University of New South Wales in Australia to sharpen the comparative elements of his research on customary land recognition in Indonesia. In this article, he focuses on lessons learned about the resilience of common forest management in Japan by discussing the challenges and innovations of state and nonstate actors.

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Community-based forest management has a long history in rural Japan. Since the Edo period (1603–1868), rural communities have shared their collective land and labor to maintain forest and other natural resources for self-sufficiency. This model of natural resource practice is known as common forest management. The common forest, called iriai in Japanese, became integrated into the traditional village system.[2] The membership of iriai common forest groups is embedded in that of traditional Japanese villages (mura). However, common forest management has slowly changed over time due to internal and external factors since Japan entered the industrial revolution. This article discusses several challenges concerning the current practice of common forest management in Japan. I also reveal several initiatives by the government and citizens to restore collaborative forest management and to renew interest in rural development. The analysis in this article is based on interviews, literature studies, and observations conducted in two rural areas in Japan during my Sylff Research Abroad (SRA) fellowship in November and December 2019.


What Is the Common Forest in Japan?

Many scholars have used the iriai forest or common forest in Japan as an illustrative example of potential community-based management as an alternative to private property ownership and an extractive model of natural resource management (Mitsumata and Murata 2007; Berge and McKean 2015). For a long time, the rural population in Japan has collectively engaged in agricultural activities in shared communal land by planting trees, especially sugi and pine, to meet their daily needs. Iriai groups have collectively cleared, planted, maintained, and harvested forest products to provide mutual benefits among the members. The membership of the common forest group was initially based on the membership of a village. Since the Japanese government installed modern development programs, primarily through the Meiji Restoration (1868), many traditional concepts, laws, and activities have slightly changed. In the following section, I will discuss five concerns about recent developments in common forest management in Japan.

Five Challenges of Common Forest Management

The common forest practice in Japan faces multidimensional challenges. Here I will briefly discuss five major challenges of the common forest in Japan, including demographic, economic, environmental, institutional, and regulatory factors.[3] Firstly, legal uncertainty leads to misrecognition and disputes among iriai rights holders (regulatory factor). During the Meiji era (1868–1912), Japan’s Civil Code began to take effect. The Civil Code is a mark that Japan began incorporating a modern legal system inspired by the German and French legal traditions (Kanamori, 1999). Regarding the property right regime, the modern Civil Code strictly divides land property into private and public properties (Suzuki, 2013: 67–86). In short, private property is in the ownership of individual citizens, whereas public property belongs to the state or other public bodies. This dichotomy leads to uncertainty regarding the legal status of iriai forests because the iriai model cannot be categorized as either private or public property. As a result, Article 263 of the Civil Code considers the common forest to be in the co-ownership of a group of citizens. By contrast, Article 294 stipulates iriai as the right of the local population to use state land or forest. Neither of these articles represents the original model of iriai forest rights, which combine communal and individual land ownership.

Misrecognition of the legal status of the common forest in the Civil Code generates ambiguity in land registration practices. Iriai rights holders have to register their common land and forest under “nominal names” on behalf of other legal entities. Gakuto Takumura (2019) demonstrates six models of how iriai rights holders register their communal land rights. These six models of adaptation to the modern land administration system appear in the registration of a common forest on behalf of other legal entities, such as (a) a leader of a village, (b) several leaders of a village, (c) all household heads in a village, (d) a shrine or temple of a village, (e) a new municipality, or (f) a district, a cooperative, or an authorized community association. Registering the iriai right under nominal names has occasionally caused legal disputes among the iriai rights holders. One case that received much attention in Japan was the Kotsunagi case, which took decades for the courts to settle (Inoue and Shivakoti 2015).


The author gives a guest lecture on customary forests and tourism in Japan and Indonesia at the Osaka University of Tourism. Detailed information can be found at https://www.tourism.ac.jp/news/cat3/5810.html.

The second concern is government imposition of the modernization of iriai forest management (institutional factor). Besides the legal status, another institutional challenge to the iriai forest is the modernization of the rural administrative system. In the early period of the Meiji era, the Japanese government announced a policy to modernize village governments. The modernization of village government affects iriai forest management because iriai group membership was traditionally based on membership in a traditional Japanese village. This challenge parallels the general trend in rural Japan to merge villages rather than splitting them into several smaller villages. When two or more villages are merged, a question arises regarding the ownership and membership of iriai rights, whether it still belongs to the initial village that has merged or it becomes the co-ownership of the new village union.

Another striking policy by the Japanese government to modernize iriai forest management is the Modernization of the Common Forest Act of 1966 (Takahashi and Matsushita 2015). This act intended to transform traditional common forest practices into modern forest management. However, the implementation of this act did not result in a uniform model of forest management; instead, the act has been adopted in different models of forest management depending on the social conditions of iriai rights holders. Research by Daisaku Shimada (2014) revealed how rural communities in the Yamaguni district in Kyoto adapted to the Modernization of Common Forest Act and other external influences, such as population change and the timber liberalization policy in securing common forest management. Rural communities modify their common forest institution to allow migrants to be members of new forest management boards.

The third challenge is depopulation and urbanization (demographic factor). In contemporary Japan, depopulation and urbanization are central issues in the debate on rural development. Japanese society is experiencing depopulation because of a low birthrate and an aging population. At the same time, the urbanization level is dramatically high. Many young people move away to live in urban areas, leaving the rural areas mainly inhabited by older generations. Depopulation and urbanization affect the membership and decision-making process in common forest management. The membership of iriai forest groups shrinks as some of the members move to the city or elsewhere, causing a reduction of the workforce in the management of the common forest. In the past, iriai rights holders lived permanently in a village. When someone moved to other villages, his or her rights to the iriai forest vanished. Today, some people consider their rights to remain valid even when they have moved to other villages. Another problem in terms of people’s mobility concerns the decision-making process in common forest management. Traditionally, iriai rights holders decide on common forest management through a consensual agreement among the group members (Goto 2007). If a member of the iriai group is not involved or disagrees with the majority opinion, it means that the group has not reached a consensual decision. Currently, some iriai groups apply flexible categorization to their common forest membership by including newcomers to the board and involving them in the decision-making process. The lack of a clear decision-making process and a shrinking workforce have led to the underuse of iriai forests in several places in rural Japan.

The fourth problem is the timber liberalization policy (economic factor). In the 1960s, the Japanese government introduced a timber trade liberalization policy to support industrial development. This policy increased timber import from other countries, mainly from the United States, Russia, and Southeast Asian countries. As a result, this strategy decreased the competitiveness of domestic timber production and the economic value of wood, which has been the core commodity of common forests. Before the timber liberalization policy, the common forest supplied wood for building houses, offices, castles, and temples, as well as for making furniture, and provided firewood for cooking and heating. From the 1960s onward, as the country entered a period of rapid economic growth, Japan replaced the use of wood with other resources. The use of concrete and steel is more dominant for residential buildings and offices, and the use of fossil fuels in place of firewood is increasingly widespread. In addition, to meet domestic wood demand, the Japanese government no longer relies on domestic supplies and relies instead on imported wood. This timber import policy devastated Japan’s domestic timber production and market. Consequently, the core business of iriai forests, that of meeting domestic wood demand, has gradually declined. Lack of productive activities in rural areas also became one of the drivers for rural people to move to big cities.


Together with a group of postgraduate students from Kyoto University, the author visits a private forest in Kawakami Mura, Nara Prefecture. This forest site is the oldest planted forest in Japan.

The final concern relates to land degradation (environmental factor). Iriai rights holders maintain the common forest by growing supporting plants around the main trees. These plants support soil fertility and provide economic benefits to farmers. However, due to the shortage of labor to maintain the common forest, conifer plantations are left unmaintained. At first glance, this condition looks good for conservation, because forests are left green and trees grow for long periods. But apparently, this is not suitable for the healthy growth of the main trees because they are in competition with the shrubbery. Moreover, unmanaged conifer plantations cause frequent landslides in rural areas. These disasters are compounded by the typhoon and earthquake catastrophes that often occur in Japan. This environmental vulnerability is not only the cause but also the result of underutilization of the common forests.

Revitalization Movements

The revitalization of common forest management in Japan corresponds with an attempt to improve rural livelihoods. The Japanese government and nongovernmental organizations engage in rural development, including the revival of common forest management. The Japanese government, through the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, implements a program to increase the interest of urban residents, either Japanese citizens or immigrants, in living in rural areas. These people from different locations assist rural community members in meeting their basic needs, especially related to health and livelihood. Moreover, the Japanese government promotes a “forest volunteer program” to attract people’s interest in getting involved in forest restoration activities. Forest volunteers are individuals other than forest owners or those with a direct interest, who participate in on-site work necessary for forest management in response to the critical state of the forests. Shinji Yamamoto (2003) found that the forest volunteer program has been generating a positive impact on drawing urban people’s interest in forestry activities. This program began in the 1970s and has since spread across the country. According to Japan’s Forestry Agency, the number of citizens’ organisations that have participated in forest volunteer activities was 2,677 as of 2010 (Yamamoto 2003). 

Nonprofit organizations and universities also run several programs to enhance the interest of young generations regarding rural livelihood and environmental management. A crucial example is the kikigaki program. Literally, kikigaki consists of the words kiki (“listening”) and gaki (“writing”). The kikigaki program encourages young people to take an interest in the stories of local people. Kikigaki is a learning method for understanding someone’s life story through direct dialogue. Since 2002, high schools in Japan have adopted the kikigaki method to raise students’ awareness of societal problems faced by rural communities (Effendi 2019). Due to the increase in global attention toward environmental issues, the kikigaki program also covers environmental education for children. Environmental issues allow students to get involved in the revitalization of common forest management. The kikigaki program initially developed in Japan and spread out to other countries, such as Indonesia. I interviewed Motoko Shimagami, who is developing kikigaki programs in both Japan and Indonesia. According to Shimagami, youth involvement is an essential factor in improving rural livelihood and sustainable environmental management. Several years ago, Shimagami conducted a comparative study of common forest management between Indonesia and Japan (Shimagami 2009) and found that similar methods of revitalization of the common forest through the education of high school students are pivotal in both countries.


Matsutake Crusaders, a voluntary group dominated by elders who gather every week to maintain a hill landscape, creating a suitable condition for matsutake mushrooms to grow.

Another initiative that I have seen in Japan is the ecovillage network. An ecovillage is an intentional, traditional, or urban community that is consciously designed through locally owned participatory processes encompassing social, cultural, ecological, and economic dimensions to regenerate social and natural environments.[4] In 2013, I visited the Konohana Family ecovillage in Shizuoka Prefecture. This ecovillage is part of a worldwide ecovillage network. The Konohana Family, though it calls itself a family, consists of 100 members who are not of the same blood. They live in rural areas and cultivate collective agricultural land. With the spirit of “togetherness” as a family, they fulfill basic needs through collective land management. During my visit to Japan with the support of the SRA fellowship program, I visited the Matsutake Crusaders in the northern part of Kyoto. This group consists of more than 30 retirees who gather once a week to engage in collaborative natural resource management. They nurture matsutake, a wild mushroom typical of Japan that has high economic and cultural values (Tsing 2015). They voluntarily cut some pine wood as a precondition to creating a suitable environment for matsutake to grow. Professor Fumihiko Yoshimura, the leader of this group, said that although this initiative is different from the iriai rights model, they called it a satoyama movement. The satoyama concept in landscape management combines forest and agricultural activities, mainly in hill areas. Currently, many rural communities in Japan are involved in satoyama movements (Satsuka 2014). In another location, a study by Haruo Saito and Gaku Mitsumata (2008) shows the integration of matsutake production with traditional iriai land use in Oka Village, Kyoto Prefecture.

This article has illustrated five major challenges of common forest management in Japan. These challenges are responded to with a variety of innovations by the government and nongovernment organizations to help the common forest practices survive in supporting rural livelihood. These innovations to revitalize community-based natural resource management have been developed with various narratives such as environmental movements, rural livelihood supports, family and community orientation projects, and voluntary civic education. Although rural communities have encountered serious challenges since Japan entered industrial development, villagers continue to maintain the common forest with some modifications. Villagers demonstrate the resilience of common forest management by taking an inclusive approach that includes migrants in the board membership of common forest management and by involving themselves in broader networks of community-based natural resource movements. Community resilience is the crucial factor in common forest management in Japan.



Berge, Erling, and Margaret Mckean. 2015. “On the Commons of Developed Industrialized Countries.” International Journal of the Commons 9, no. 2 (September 2015): 469–85.

Effendi, Tonny Dian. 2019. “Local Wisdom-based Environmental Education through Kikigaki Method: Japan Experience and Lesson for Indonesia.” IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science 239: 012038. https://doi.org/10.1088/1755-1315/239/1/012038.

Goto, Kokki. 2007. “‘Iriai Forests Have Sustained the Livelihood and Autonomy of Villagers’: Experience of Commons in Ishimushiro Hamlet in Northeastern Japan.” Working Paper Series No. 30. Afrasian Centre for Peace and Development Studies, Ryukoku University.

Inoue, Makoto, and Ganesha P. Shivakoti. 2015. Multi-level Forest Governance in Asia: Concepts, Challenges and the Way Forward. India: Sage Publication.

Kanamori, Shigenari. 1999. “German Influences on Japanese Pre-War Constitution and Civil Code.” European Journal of Law and Economics 7, no. 93–95. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1008688209052.

Mitsumata, Gaku, and Takeshi Murata. 2007. “Overview and Current Status of the Iriai (Commons) System in the Three Regions of Japan: From the Edo Era through the Beginning of the 21st Century.” Discussion Paper No. 07-04. Kyoto: Multilevel Environmental Governance for Sustainable Development Project.

Miyanaga, Kentaro, and Daisaku Shimada. 2018. “‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ by Underuse: Toward a Conceptual Framework Based on Ecosystem Services and Satoyama Perspective.” International Journal of the Commons 12, no. 1: 332–51.

Saito, Haruo, and Gaku Mitsumata. 2008. “Bidding Customs and Habitat Improvement for Matsutake (Tricholoma matsutake) in Japan.” Economic Botany 62, no. 3: 257–68.

Satsuka, Shiho. 2014. “The Satoyama Movement: Envisioning Multispecies Commons in Postindustrial Japan.” In Asian Environments: Connections across Borders, Landscapes, and Times, RCC Perspectives, no. 3: 87–94.

Shimagami, Motoko. 2009. “An Iriai Interchange Linking Japan and Indonesia: An Experiment in Interactive Learning and Action Leading toward Community-Based Forest Management.” Working Paper Series No. 46. Afrasian Centre for Peace and Development Studies, Ryukoku University.

Suzuki, Tatsuya. 2013 “The Custom and Legal Theory of Iriai in Japan: A History of the Discourse on the Position of the Rights of Common in the Modern Legal System.” In Local Commons and Democratic Environmental Governance, edited by Takeshi Murota and Ken Takeshita. Tokyo-New York-Paris: United Nations University Press.

Takahashi, Takuya, and Koji Matsushita. 2015. “How Did Policy Intervention Work Out for Commons Forests in Japan? An Analysis of Time-Series Prefectural Data.” Paper in the IASC Conference 2015 Edmonton W23 (2015-5-27).

Takamura, Gakuto. 2019. “The Bundle of Rights Model to Explain the Underuse of Japanese Common Forest from History.” Presentation in Asian Law and Society Association (ALSA) Conference, Osaka Univesity, December 12–15, 2019.

Tsing, Anna L. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruin. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Yamamoto, Shinji. 2003. “Forest Volunteer Activity in Japan.” In Local Commons and Democratic Environmental Governance, edited by Takeshi Murota and Ken Takeshita. Tokyo–New York–Paris: United Nations University Press. 287–302.




[1] I would like to express my gratitude to Professor Sozaburo Mitamayama (Osaka University of Tourism) for his hospitality and assistance during my research visit in Japan. I am also thankful for a series of insightful discussions that I have had with Motoko Shimagami (Ehime University), Gaku Mitsumata (Hyogo University), Gakuto Takamura (Ritsumeikan University), and Mamoru Kanzaki and Daisuke Naito (Kyoto University), and for the fruitful comments by Hoko Horri (Leiden University) for this article.

[2] In this article, the terms “common forest” and “iriai forest” are used interchangeably.

[3] See also Kentaro Miyanaga and Daisaku Shimada (2018), who identify three main driving factors that lead to the underuse of common forests in Japan: demographic drivers, socioeconomic drivers, and institutional drivers.

[4] See. https://ecovillage.org/projects/what-is-an-ecovillage/

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Thoughts Regarding Local Foods

October 11, 2019
By 24933

Nomingerel Davaadorj, a 2009 Sylff fellow at the National Academy of Governance and one of 20 participants in the first Sylff Leaders Workshop, gives her insights into local foods in Mongolia, her home country, and Japan, where she spent two years in completing her LLM at Kyushu University.

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I had the privilege of participating in the first Sylff Leaders Workshop, where Sylff fellows from diverse backgrounds discussed the topic of “The Future of Food Production in 2030” in the cities of Sasayama, Hyogo Prefecture, and Beppu, Oita Prefecture, in Japan. The workshop was a generous opportunity to experience Japanese culture and cuisine and to access important landmarks and places in Japanese history. It also motivated me to share my thoughts about local foods and food experiences I enjoyed in Japan during the workshop.

Food production and food security are not directly my professional concerns. However, I became interested in these issues through my research into pastoral livestock husbandry management. Pastoral livestock husbandry is still practiced in Mongolia today, and it is considered a main producer of organic food. I remember being surprised when I discovered that there are restrictions on the intake of milk and dairy products by young children in some countries. This was because I was taught as a child that milk and dairy products are good for our teeth and bone development. Fortunately, we had organic milk and dairy products produced through traditional, free ranching practices. They were all locally produced or processed, and we did not need to worry about high levels of hormones, antibiotics, or pesticides. Since initiating my research on pastoral livestock husbandry, I have come to know the significance of locally produced foods and their benefits to our wellbeing and environmental sustainability.

Describing local foods in Mongolia at the final presentation in Beppu.


One solution toward ensuring food security generated from our discussions was to utilize cultural knowledge of staple foods. During my two years living in Japan, I have noticed that the eating habits of the Japanese people are very healthy and that Japanese-style dishes use very nutritious ingredients. The keynote speech in Sasayama by Professor Narumi Yoshikawa, an expert on the agricultural economy, about the teikei organic agricultural movement initiated in the 1970s was intriguing because it is based on traditional culture and embraces eco-friendly practices. It was an example of how local foods and traditional, indigenous knowledge could become part of a national trend.

Until recently, I believed that we, Mongolians, are lactose-tolerant, meaning that we can digest milk and dairy products with an enzyme called lactase in the body.[1] Dairy foods make up a significant share of our food consumption even in adulthood. But recent research revealed that only 5% of Mongolians actually have lactase persistence alleles. Additionally, findings indicated that traditional knowledge of producing dairy products played a significant role in changing the microorganisms in milk.[2] In brief, traditional food culture and its food processing technology, passed down from generation to generation, simply changed the “game” to compensate for lactose intolerance.

Local food items, naturally, form the core of local cuisine. In Japan, many localities have developed their own typical dishes that are only available locally. Examples include Kobe beef, Hokkaido’s soft serve ice cream and seafood, Okinawa’s yagi sashimi (raw goat meat), Fukuoka’s Hakata ramen, Itoshima’s oysters, Osaka’s takoyaki, Hiroshima’s okonomiyaki, and so on. They all use common foods like vegetables, fish, and meat, but the uniqueness lies in the way they are prepared or cooked, which is linked to traditional knowledge.

Discovering and eating famous local foods can be fun and delicious, almost like participating in a food marathon. During our workshop, we had opportunities to experience many traditional Japanese dishes, including black soybeans (kuromame) and boar meat in Sasayama, Edo-style cuisine on a yakatabune cruise in Tokyo Bay, Kyoto-style cuisine (kaiseki) in the Gion district of Kyoto, Buddhist cuisine (shojin ryori) in the Monju Senji Temple in Oita, and a pufferfish course (fugu) in Beppu. They were all special because they were prepared with local know-how and ingredients only available in the respective areas.    

Dinner on the first night in Sasayama.


Shojin ryori is a meal without meat, fish, or other animal products, being based instead on grains and vegetables. It is the cuisine of Buddhist monks at Japanese temples. The main source of protein is tofu and other soybean-based foods. Before having shojin ryori at Monju Senji Temple, I expected simple dishes since my friendly coordinators from the Sylff Association secretariats told me so, and I was looking forward to experiencing the elegant austerity of the monastic life. Indeed, shojin ryori turned out to be a beautifully arranged and tasty set meal. It was evidence of how simple and humble ingredients can be rendered into a charming and fulfilling meal. Of course, the secret was traditional cooking knowledge and locally prepared tofu made with water from a spring. As the head monk explained, both my mind and body were gratified after having shojin ryori.


Shojin ryori.


Fugu, or pufferfish, is a Japanese delicacy. Time magazine called fugu one of the Top 10 Most Dangerous Foods, saying “fugu’s intestines, ovaries and liver contain a poison called tetrodotoxin, which is 1,200 times deadlier than cyanide.”[3] Fugu has been eaten for centuries in Japan, though, and “poison-free” methods of preparation have been handed down from generation to generation. Currently, only licensed chefs who have two to three years of training are allowed to prepare fugu dishes. Another interesting fact is that fugu is the only food the Emperor of Japan is forbidden to eat by law. It was my first time to have a full set of fugu dishes, including fugu sashimi, fried fugu, fugu sushi, fugu soup, and fugu rice porridge.

Fugu dishes.


Shojin ryori and fugu are examples of local foods that developed as part of traditional culture using indigenous knowledge. Thanks to the support of policymakers and an effective tourism policy, local foods have taken root in every part of Japan. The traditional foods we encountered during the two sessions of the workshop were wonderful, yet quite different. Countries like Mongolia that face challenges in preserving local foods in the era of standardized food production should draw lessons from these initiatives in Japan. Locally grown foods are considered the most delicious and nutritious. Should we lose such local foods in today’s globalized world, this would be like losing one’s national identity. It would indeed be boring if everything was the same wherever you went. So, I hope that everyone will consider local foods seriously and support their survival into the future.

Finally, I want to thank the Sylff Association for giving me the opportunity to participate in a highly enjoyable experience during the Leaders Workshop. I treasure the friendship with the 19 other fellows who continue to inspire and motivate me in promoting my professional and personal growth. Thank you all!

[1] https://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/digestive-diseases-lactose-intolerance#1, last visited Sep 25, 2019.

[2] Choongwon Jeong et al., “Bronze Age Population Dynamics and the Rise of Dairy Pastoralism on the Eastern Eurasian Steppe,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 115, no. 48 (November 27, 2018): at E11253, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1813608115.

[3] http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1967235_1967238_1967227,00.html, last visited Sep 25, 2019.

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Carceral Logics and Social Justice: Women Prisoners in India

September 20, 2019
By 19827

Rimple Mehta, a Sylff fellow at Jadavpur University, and her project partner, Mahuya Bandyopadhyay, an associate professor at the School of Development Studies of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, implemented a year-long social action project with funding from the Sylff Leadership Initiatives (SLI). Their project is intended to build a network with practitioners, scholars, and activists to work as a pressure group to ensure the rights of women prisoners in India and raise awareness beyond the network to change the negative perceptions around the issues at hand. In this article, Mehta and Bandyopadhyay write about their SLI-funded project.

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Women Prisoners in India

Women prisoners in India constitute five percent of the prison population. They are often incarcerated in wards within larger prisons for men. Women prisoner wards then become “prisons within prisons.” There are only a few all-women prisons. Once in prison the women are ostracized by their families, as they are perceived as breaking not only legal codes but also social norms, therefore doubly deviant. Ostracization by families means that their access to justice is limited. Seclusion through imprisonment is not just a physical seclusion but also an alienation from their familial and kin networks. This indicates their marginalization both within the institution and outside it.

Institutions like the prison in India do not receive adequate media or public attention because of the perceptions around crime and criminality. Although the ideas of incarceration have shifted from punishment to reform, in reality prison administration and the public beyond prison walls continue to be dismissive of any efforts toward reform and rehabilitation and of any attempts to talk about the concerns of prisoners and prison administration.


Conceptualizing Social Justice

Social justice for women prisoners in India is a neglected area but has been the focus of our research for a decade now. This project, although in continuity with our efforts, marks a departure in two ways: First, it expands the boundaries of research and understanding of the lives and contexts of women’s imprisonment through the inclusion of activists, scholars, social work practitioners, and administrators. Second, we have consolidated our previous ethnographic fieldwork experiences to move beyond the specificities of site and initiate discussions on advocacy around issues of women prisoners. One of the first steps toward social change, we believe, is reflexivity. While evaluating our research on women prisoners, we felt compelled to reflect on our positions and our location within the academic and certain disciplinary contexts. With years of research on, learning about, and understanding of women’s imprisonment, we were able to see the need to move out of the confines of our locations to collaborate with those who are engaging with similar issues in different capacities. The SLI award enabled us to put this idea to action.


Activities and Approach

The main foci of the project were to find and engage with those committed to bringing about a change in the lives of women prisoners and to open up a space for discussions on their lives. We have realized this by organizing meetings—in Mumbai, Kolkata, and Delhi—and a workshop titled “Carceral Logics and Social Justice: A Dialogue between Practitioners, Scholars and Activists” that brought together scholars, activists, social work practitioners, and administrators.

Most of the participants in the workshop contributed papers detailing their work and experiences with women prisoners to our book, Women, Incarcerated: Narratives from India. Through this edited volume we will be able to reach out to the general reader interested in women offenders, concerned citizens, and organizations working for social justice. The narratives of women prisoners from different parts of the country featured in the book will enable readers to access their lives and conditions of imprisonment, which are otherwise invisible.

Further, the book, as it moves beyond the constrained domains of academic disciplines, is written in a manner and style that are easy to connect with and enable a wide readership. In including various perspectives outside of academic research, we have broadened the horizons of knowledge and understanding about women prisoners in India.

Professor Surinder Jaswal, deputy director, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, speaks at the workshop in Mumbai titled “Carceral Logics and Social Justice: A Dialogue between Practitioners, Scholars and Activists.”



We were able to enter into multiple dialogues through this project. The process of organizing the meetings enabled us to understand the complexities and the challenges involved for those working on the ground to address concerns in women’s imprisonment. The meetings that we held in different cities brought forth diverse concerns from specific local contexts of women’s imprisonment. For instance, at the meeting in Kolkata, the absence of sanitary napkins and baby food for children in prison emerged as a major concern. When this issue was brought up in the Mumbai meeting, it was observed that this was being provided and was, therefore, not an issue of prime concern in that locality. At the meeting in Delhi, the need was emphasized for formalizing alliances to work on specific issues around women’s imprisonment.

The participants of the three meetings asserted the need for an online platform to share existing knowledge, brainstorm on emergent issues, and respond to crisis situations with regard to women prisoners. They felt that even though individuals and organizations were doing substantive work trying to push for reforms in the treatment of women prisoners, much of this work remained isolated efforts. Consolidation of this work through a larger and formalized network was suggested. The Indian Prisons Network (IPNet), for which these three meetings were held, was endorsed and has been initiated through this project.

The need for different people to speak at a common forum and the difficulties of doing so were highlighted in our workshop, which was organized with the contributors to our edited volume. The different ideological positions initially generated some discomfort among the participants. But the discussions stand testimony to the fact that the participants’ work was geared toward bringing out a change in the everyday lives of women prisoners. The papers in the volume lay bare women’s experiences of exclusion, marginalization, and violence and the ways in which incarceration intersects with different institutions in their everyday lives. The ongoing dialogues with our contributors as we edited the papers have added a qualitative edge to the way in which these issues of women prisoners have been represented.

In this entire process, we have also built stronger connections with some of our supporters and collaborators who have been actively working within the prison space. These connections have opened up the space to work toward making the prison more accessible to researchers and practitioners. The opening up of the prison through dialogue and writing disrupt the singular narrative of the woman prisoner as “mad woman,” “socially deviant,” and “morally bankrupt,” paving the way for empathy.

Uma Chakravarti speaks at “Carceral Logics and Social Justice: A Dialogue between Practitioners, Scholars and Activists.”


Looking Forward

The significance can never be overstated of the publication and dissemination of ideas in an area where information and knowledge are scarce and, even when available, are articulated only in terms of certain dominant and powerful narratives. Through this project we have attempted to communicate the lives, contexts, and treatment of women prisoners in India. By presenting multiple perspectives, we have countered the idea of a single narrative about a woman prisoner that rests on an assumption of breaking a moral code. We seek to continue this effort through more field engagement, research, and writing about prisons in India.

Moreover, this project has brought forth and strengthened the idea of experiments within governance and reform, such as the cultural therapy initiative in West Bengal. We would like to further explore and document these ideas, to see if there are other experiments in the country including documentation of the open prison. Advocacy initiatives through networking can further strengthen these activities, and we hope that through IPNet we will be able to harness the strength of a collective. Networking on an issue that has limited field accessibility increases the value of networking. We envisage that this may be possible because IPNet has adopted a multi-stakeholder approach, where individuals and organizations value empirical research and experiential participation in prison administration.

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Potters’ Locality: The Socioeconomics of Bankura’s Terracotta

August 26, 2019
By 21711

This report is based on the master’s research by Soumya Bhowmick, a Sylff fellow at Jadavpur University, India, in 201415. It originally appeared in FIRSTPOST. a web-based leading media in India. Bhowmick, currently research assistant at Observer Research Foundation’s Kolkata Chapter, continues  writing on the changing socioeconomics of the potters’ community known for the terracotta Bankura Horse, which  is historically valued in Indian society, especially West Bengal.

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The norwesters in the potters’ village of Panchmura is magnificent in ways more than one. The extremely dry atmosphere during the summer months of April–May make one compare the place to a hot desert with red dust smeared all over your clothes. This period is marked by the holy time of Baisakh, when the potter’s wheel is stopped as it is believed that during this time Lord Shiva appears from the wheel. Many justify it with a scientific reason: that the terrible heat easily exhausts the artisans and causes cracks to develop in the pottery items. After a heavy rainfall, the sweet petrichor is one of the strongest in this part of the town owing to the large amounts of terracotta clay all over the place. The potters are relatively free during these months and are very eager to have a chat with you over tea in their workshops.

An artisan uses the potter’s wheel in Panchmura village.

Mahadeb Kumbhakar, 56, proudly proclaims, “The trademark Bankura Horse [uniquely styled terracotta horse made in Bankura] came into existence because people would offer them as a mark of devotion to different deities and even on the tombs of Muslim saints. It is used as the official crest motif of the All India Handicrafts Board.” He woefully adds that a large number of youngsters in the area, including his own son, have moved to Kolkata not only because of the money but also because of their inability to commit to the labor required for this kind of artistry. Mahadeb justifies that there is no harm in working in an office while at the same time being a marginal potter. That way, the skill is never wiped out from the family.

Unfinished Bankura Horses at Panchmura village.

Panchmura village near Bishnupur, Bankura District, is one of the main hubs of terracotta in West Bengal. Historically, the politically stable Malla Kingdom indulged in a lot of cultural activity and invited high caste Brahmins, expert craftsmen, and masons to Bishnupur, and through the amalgamation of religion and culture, these people contributed largely to the trade and commerce of the region. The Bankura artisans gradually scattered to different parts of the country, but today only the few remaining in Panchmura are still striving to keep this art form alive.

A usual day in Bishnupur.

The origin of terracotta in India can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization. Terracotta came into existence in Bengal due to the unavailability of stones and large endowments of alluvial soil left by the main rivers in the Bankura District: Damodar, Dwarakeshwar, and the Kangsabati. The soil thus gets a perfect blend and density for it to be crafted intricately and fired in order to produce the required terracotta products. A Panchmura artisan says that a Durga idol made in Bankura is at least three times as heavy as an idol of the same size made in Kolkata because the soil found in Bankura is much more dense and mineral rich, making the crafting process extremely laborious.

The cultural transformation in the community is well captured through the terracotta craft embossed on the walls of various temples, towers, and smaller objects in the region. Many scholars have interpreted this as a translation of the primitive Sanskrit literature into mainstream Bengali narratives that allowed the emergence of such popular cults in Hinduism as Durga, Krishna, and Kali. The terracotta temples in Bankura are mostly Radha-Krishna temples, which drew inspiration from Vaishnavism.

The Munshiganj District in Bangladesh, which is close to the confluence of the Padma and Brahmaputra rivers, is a storehouse of terracotta work on the other side of Bengal. Almost all the temples are dedicated to Shiva, and the temple roofs are distinctly different from the ones found in Bankura, as the ones in Munshiganj are more longitudinally conical.

A terracotta temple in Munshiganj District in Bangladesh.

Narratives on terracotta were sources of both information and entertainment for the people, depicting stories from the mythological texts of Ramayana, Mahabharata, Hitopodesha, Jataka, and Panchatantra. There has been emphasis on scenes indicating rural life, farming techniques, male and female dancers, musicians, and village gardens. Bengal architecture is uniquely different from the architecture that coincided with the Muslim rule in India, and by the end of the sixteenth century a new Bengali style of temple art became prominent and established itself as an artistic Hindu expression.

The exquisite Rash Mancha in Bishnupur.

Unlike most of the other art forms that emerged with the purpose of aesthetic value in creativity, terracotta was made to serve practical purposes, such as food and water storage, weapons, and utensils. From being necessary commodities of daily use, these artifacts evolved into something more creative imbued with a high level of craft, making terracotta a cultural commodity with great marketing potential.

A shop in Bankura.

The Bankura District is known for its popular handicrafts in the form of terracotta, the Dokra handicrafts of Bigna, the stone craft of Susunia, and the Baluchari silk of Bishnupur. The global interest in Indian terracotta can also be found in a letter by Swami Vivekananda regarding the time when Okakura Kakuzo, the famous Japanese scholar, visited India in 1901–1902. Okakura was extremely impressed by the craftsmanship of a common terracotta vessel used by the servants and, owing to the fragility of these handicrafts, he requested Swami Vivekananda to replicate the piece in brass for him to carry it back to Japan.

Terracotta is still of high interest in the global market, and Panchmura, Surul, Chaltaberia, and Shetpur-Palpara are the major villages in West Bengal that export terracotta to international markets. However, the artisans face a number of key problems that are crippling the market for this kind of artwork, including the issues of equipment, transportation, and other logistical problems; the lack of interaction between the artisans and the urban consumers in Kolkata; and the high dependence of terracotta artisans on local patronage. Moreover, the inadequate capital, sluggish marketing, and falling demand are causing these marginalized artisans to become extinct, and the lack of interest from the new generation along with insufficient government schemes further add to the woes.

Terracotta craftwork in progress at Bishnupur.

Toton Kumbhakar, 30, says, “We get some idea of consumer preferences in the handicrafts fair in Kolkata every year, where people mostly demand the Bankura Horse, since it has a certain traditional value as a regular showpiece in the Kolkata households.” The potters admit that they charge much more for the handicrafts in Kolkata and are also financially dependent on the various regional festivals, for which they make large idols for relatively hefty prices.

The terracotta temples in Bishnupur show a much better quality and precision than the artifacts being produced today. For example, the details on the terracotta tiles used in the temples are much more intricate and portray a more complex network of lines, curves, and dots. How is this possible despite improvements in technology and intruments? The extinction of skill-specific labor is the answer to this. According to the locals, the process of terracotta production in Bankura previously included three major classes of workers: the clay collectors and sievers, who would give a fine texture to the clay; the artisans, who would add the intricate details; and finally the market traders. There is no specific class of labor anymore for each of these three roles.

Ancient temple architecture in Bishnupur.

“Bankura is my native place, and so terracotta has a special place in the lives of my family members,” says an urban consumer in Kolkata. “Apart from items to decorate the house, we use terracotta items for daily use. For example, in summer we do not drink cold water from the refrigerator but instead use an earthen terracotta vessel. My mother makes it a point to do a certain fish preparation in spite of it being time consuming, so that she can use the particular terracotta utensil.”

In the urban milieu, the demand for terracotta goods in Kolkata households has reached a saturation point. As the central government actively pushes for the promotion of various handicrafts from different states, art forms of other regions, particularly Madhubani paintings and Rajasthani handicrafts, are certainly very popular. Bankura’s terracotta seems to be lagging behind in this regard.

Bankura’s terracotta is a classic case of a dying cultural heritage. Sustaining the art is a social responsibility. Unlike the rest of West Bengal, the parliamentary constituency of Bankura has voted against incumbent leaders and political parties twice in the last decade, which is a major indication of people’s awareness and urgency of development in the region.

Culture is a matter of recognition, and aesthetics is more about perception than materiality. Very recently, the West Bengal state government has reportedly nominated Bishnupur’s terracotta temples for the UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This should be considered as a massive step toward drawing attention to this part of Bengal’s history and culture. However, only time will tell how efficiently such measures could facilitate the socioeconomic advancement of the potters’ community in Bankura.

(Note: All the pictures used in this article were taken by the author in Bankura District, India, and Munshiganj District in Bangladesh during the surveys.)

 Reprinted, with editing, from FIRSTPOST, https://www.firstpost.com/living/bankuras-terracotta-can-timely-measures-facilitate-socio-economic-revival-of-potters-community-7001001.html.


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Listen to Your Uber Driver: A Comment on the Economic and Emotional Vulnerability of Uber’s Silent Partner

July 12, 2019
By 22416

With the support of the SRA award, Emma McDaid, a 2017 Sylff fellow at the UNSW Business School, carried out her doctoral dissertation research concerning “sharing economy” through interviews of Uber drivers on active duty in Europe. In this article, McDaid shares her research findings as well as her personal experience and viewpoints on fieldwork.

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With the advent of sharing organizations, or platforms, like Uber and Airbnb, consumers and entrepreneurs have inherited more choice and flexibility. Sharing marketplaces are disintermediated, meaning that they operate without a middle partner, so information is shared by individuals online in a reciprocal fashion when they leave star ratings or reviews on their peers. As accounting scholars, we have been busy investigating the impact that such online ratings and rankings (the TripAdvisor ranking index and Amazon product ratings, for example) have on traditional notions of accountability and, indeed, how these mechanisms are responsible for a new audit society—an era heralded by a heavy focus on the verification of lived experience. However, a small number of us are also beginning to address how these metrics are used by organizations to manage platform users. For example, Uber drivers must maintain a customer rating of 4.6 stars (out of a possible 5 stars) in Sydney, Australia, if they want to maintain job security. A rating lower than this and “deactivation,” or dismissal, occurs. Hence, for these drivers, a 3-star rating often means the difference between being employed and being unemployed. In my research, in addition to conducting research in Australia, I have been able to travel overseas with the help of the Sylff travel scholarship to investigate how the rules of platform organizations affect the service providers who hold a key position in the value chain.

The Uber organization reflects a new kind of disaggregated labor market, accessible to its users through a technology application on a mobile device. It is the largest of the ride-sharing model, holding over two million drivers in partnership around the world. With Uber, the users are passengers who request a ride (consumers) and drivers who have the time, skill, and vehicle to provide the service (service providers). Physically, Uber’s service providers are globally distributed, rarely coming face to face with a manager in any centralized hub or factory floor; the nature of work also means that they rarely come face to face with each other. Indeed, the courts continue to deliberate over whether these drivers hold the status of employee or contractor. Regarding this, Uber has argued from the start that its drivers are independent contractors, citing the drivers’ freedom to choose when they source work through the application and the legalities surrounding freedom of uniform and insurance requirements. However, drivers counterargue employee status based on the control that Uber sets over remuneration rates and the limitations surrounding a driver’s rights in choosing trips and accessing such information as trip destination. But while the contractor-employee debate rages on, the critical role that drivers play in the value chain for the Uber organization is sharp and definite. They are the key stakeholders responsible for the creation of economic value for the Uber empire. And this is a valuation that is continuing to rise; the organization was recently valued as the wealthiest privately owned company in the world, with its market capitalization at US$62.5 billion.

Source: Retrieved from Business Insider, December 2015, https://www.businessinsider.com/uber-valuation-vs-market-cap-of-publicly-traded-stocks-2015-12.


Their unique conditions of work prompted me to investigate how drivers were being managed by the organization. Data collection and analysis is ongoing in this regard, but in the following paragraphs, I outline some of the reflections that I have formed from my 2017 and 2018 data collection in Europe and Australia. These reflections are twofold: the first is with respect to conducting field research in these new technologically mediated and disaggregated workforces, and the second regards the most material challenges that I feel Uber drivers are currently facing.   


Field Research and the Sharing Economy

I initially collected data in Australia from around the end of 2015. But in 2017, using my Sylff SRA, I left Sydney and arrived in London to conduct field interviews. From there, I traveled on to Paris and Copenhagen. The duration of my research abroad was four weeks in total, and I conducted ten formal interviews with Uber drivers, which supplemented the interviews that I had conducted in Australia. While in Europe, I also gathered a significant amount of data from drivers via phone and through online chat rooms. Although I had mapped out the field and my intentions for data collection, I found that the logistics surrounding field interviews of this type meant that my plans changed frequently. I had to be resourceful and at times imaginative so that I could conduct interviews. Most Uber drivers work perilously hard, and although many expressed interest in being part of my research, interview times were often restricted to moments when demand was low on the application. It was not unusual to have drivers cancel an interview because they had just been pinged through their device for a trip. It was also not unusual to interview drivers before the sun came up, in coffee shops in suburbs surrounding airports—where they might expect a surging fare to come about soon. In short, without the humdrum of everyday organizational life, the field researcher needs to be sensitive to a highly changeable environment, building a significant degree of flexibility into their data collection plans. This requires more perseverance in the field, but being agile in an environment like this can also be deeply rewarding. When successful, researchers are immersed in the participant’s natural lived experience and thus extract a richer ethnographic account of the field.


An Uber Driver’s Challenges

In conducting the interviews, it became clear that Uber drivers are facing a number of challenges. Changes to the minimum fare for a trip, accessing Uber personnel to resolve pay disputes, and defending themselves against customer complaints are examples of some of the more rigorous challenges. These challenges have both economic and emotional effects on drivers. For example, when Uber entered the French market in late 2011, the minimum fare that a driver could demand was approximately €20. Over the past number of years, this has dropped down to €6, marking a 70% reduction. And while advocates for the organization will likely insist that higher minimum fares were required in order to enter new markets, many drivers have become financially vulnerable after signing on with high expectations. Drivers can also be financially vulnerable in times when their pay is incorrect, is delayed, or fails to arrive in their bank accounts—common war stories that participants offered. In these cases, they reach out to Uber through the “Help” function on the application—essentially a chat bot—waiting up to five days for an adequate, non-system-generated response. An Australian driver provided an example of a standard response issued at times like this in the image below.

Unsurprisingly, drivers go through a range of emotions in respect to this treatment. A sense of frustration was commonly expressed. While they accept that the terms and conditions of operating as a driver can often change, these unilaterally imposed rules often change without warning and explanation. Drivers describe having little control other than to start and stop driving. Driver John* commented, “They call it a partnership; there’s no partnership,” while another, Driver Mike*, explained, “See, I’m just a number. I’m just a nobody.” The setting of prices or fares by the technology proved most frustrating, as drivers believe they personally incur costs that should be built into the fare. Driver Paul* described the logic as follows: “They just don’t get it. They have no idea what it costs to run a motor vehicle. To us, us guys who do it full time, it’s a business, a small business. . . . Ask us. Have a round table conference. What are your costs? How can you set base fares and not know what people’s costs are?”

The drivers’ levels of take-home pay are inadequate, which is highlighted in an Australian government report that finds that their earnings fall short of the minimum wage (Stanford, 2018). This has led many people whom I have talked with to use metaphors of slavery when discussing the nature of platform work. And the use of technology as a tool to delegate terms and conditions on a platform does nothing to sooth the feelings of low self-worth that people doing this work experience.

These challenges exist for drivers in an environment where the customer’s voice has much more power than their own. Again, the Uber organization will say that customer complaints should be taken seriously, and indeed they should because of the nature of the service being sold. But drivers complain that their voices often go unheard when complaints are raised. At times like this, refunds are frequently and immediately given at the expense of the driver, and drivers are often deactivated from driving until they protest their rights. For this reason, many drivers now operate a dashcam in their vehicle—as a means to record trips and protect themselves in the event of an unfair complaint.

Dashcams are one of many responses to the position that drivers find themselves in. Other academic studies are reporting evidence that they have worked together to try to manipulate surge pricing by organizing mass deactivation, effectively gaming the technology (Mohlmann and Zalmanson, 2017), and that they continue to engage in strikes and efforts to join trade unions around the world. The precarious legal nature of the work is a problem faced by drivers fighting for change and for solutions to the challenges they face. In researching this field, it is hard not to empathize with their position. It is clearly one that belies the rhetoric often heard with regard to the sharing economy. 



Uber has done great things for customer choice, achieving global disruption of an industry long considered the gold standard of secure economic sectors. Introducing competition has made transport more affordable and reduced unemployment rates. However, investment has fallen out of the taxi industry, with market value wiped from taxi plates in many major cities and reduced demand affecting that workforce. And taxi drivers have been vocal about these effects. But despite all the noise that Uber has created, it is important to be mindful of the challenges that are imposed on the Uber driver. We hear frequent hagiographic accounts of what it is like to “be your own boss,” in the media and in society in general, but less about the effects of working in these conditions. These are new industrial practices that use technology in new ways—creating, in effect, a new employee. Action in this regard may need to be taken if consumers want to responsibly enjoy the Uber service.



Mohlmann, Mareike, and Lior Zalmanson. “Hands on the Wheel: Navigating Algorithmic Management and Uber Drivers’ Autonomy.” Proceedings of the International Conference on Information Systems (ICIS 2017), December 10–13, 2017.

Stanford, Jim. “Subsidising Billionaires: Simulating the Net Incomes of UberX Drivers in Australia.” Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute, March 2018.

*Names have been changed to preserve confidentiality.

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Beyond the Treasures? Beyond the Nation? Museum Representations of Thracian Heritage from Bulgaria

June 27, 2019
By 24507

Ivo Strahilov is a Sylff fellow from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski.” His doctoral dissertation scrutinizes the social construction of the ancient Thracian heritage and its uses in modern Bulgaria. With the support of the SRA award, he visited Paris where he explored the making of three museum exhibitions of the so-called Thracian treasures. In this article Strahilov discusses some of his findings and suggests a direction for future debate.

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Introduction: At the Margins of Europe

The notion of “Europe” alongside its territorial borders is not self-evident, nor coherent. One of the major uncertainties in this seemingly apparent concept is marked by the tension between the western and eastern parts of the continent. During the last decades, this problem has been investigated at length in academic literature, and several new analytical paths have been opened. Scholars have questioned both the cultural cultivation of the idea of Europe and its various regions, which are differently positioned on the symbolic geography around the prestigious core.[1] The Balkan Peninsula or Southeastern Europe, which also includes Bulgaria, represents a peculiar case in this regard. Recent critiques have delved into the historical role of “the Occident” in the “invention” of “Eastern Europe” as a specific category that is rarely recognized as truly European.[2] Other studies have outlined a hegemonic Western discourse that ascribes the Balkans to a zone of backwardness between “Europe” and “the Orient,” seeing them in a predominantly negative way and reproducing their stigmatization.[3] This, however, is not simply a foreign categorization; it is also shared by the people in such countries as Bulgaria, where this traumatizing lack of Europeanness equally functions as a self-perception. On the other hand, Balkan political and intellectual elites adapt themselves to this framework, manipulate it, and take advantage of their position in diverse situations and with varying goals. This is why some authors have also underlined that Balkan states have appropriated this understanding and even contributed to the reinforcement of the “otherizing” discourse and thus to the regionalization of the continent.[4]


Thrace as a European Heritage

This rather complex constellation is one of the starting points of my doctoral research. Examining the museological representations of the ancient past, I hypothesize that Bulgaria exploits the potential of cultural heritage to overcome its assigned position at the margins of “Europe.” To explore this assumption, I focus on the international exhibitions of the so-called Thracian treasures. These exhibitions have been organized by the Bulgarian state for more than 40 years in some of the most prominent museums all over the world, including India, Japan, Canada, the United States, Mexico, Cuba, Russia, and especially Western Europe. This project originated in the early 1970s, and since then it has been an indispensable instrument of Bulgaria’s national cultural diplomacy, which involves significant political and academic commitment.[5] Today it is deemed by some historians the most successful cultural product of Bulgaria. At the core of the project are ancient archaeological objects excavated within the territory of the present-day country. Many of them are made of precious metals and provoke strong interest both in professional circles and in the general public. The exhibited objects themselves are traditionally attributed to the Thracian tribes that inhabited the area of present-day Southeastern Europe in antiquity.[6]

In 2015, however, the fundamental premises of this project were reconsidered. During the preparation of the upcoming exhibition for the Louvre Museum in Paris, it became clear that the long-held concept and reading of the ancient past are becoming a subject of tense negotiations. The remaking of the exhibition’s narrative, which was produced through a dynamic Franco-Bulgarian collaboration, highlighted the complexities of setting a new mutually agreed interpretation of cultural heritage. Hence, I decided to pay particular attention to this exhibition in order to track the dynamics underlying the process of social construction of heritage. Thanks to the SRA award I was able to conduct fieldwork in Paris in 2018, where I interviewed museums curators, archaeologists, historians, and other experts. I also explored different institutional archives and media reports, and I contextualized them further through examination of previous studies available in specialized libraries.

Opening of the exhibition “Découverte de l’art Thrace: Trésors des musées de Bulgarie” at Petit Palais Museum (Paris, 1974). © Archives of Petit Palais Museum.

The concept of the Thracian exhibition is a heterogeneous phenomenon with many aspects, but here I would like to underline its presentation in a Western European context. As mentioned above, one of the hypotheses of my dissertation is that the Bulgarian state introduced this self-representational strategy and mobilized precious ancient objects to compensate for its marginal position on the continent. Thracian heritage, in this sense, is one of the usable concepts for the desired symbolic repositioning because it supposedly refers to Europe’s origins. To put it in a simplistic way, ancient heritage “europeanizes” Bulgaria retroactively.

The making of the exhibition at the Louvre in 2015, however, revealed for the first time that the heritagization of the Thracian legacy and its valorization abroad could entail serious turbulences. My findings suggested that discrepancies had occurred not only between Bulgarian and French (together with other foreign) scholars, but also within Bulgarian academia itself—between museologists, art historians and archaeologists, and between politicians, administrators, and scientists. Although the discussions and preparations resulted in a well-publicized exhibition accompanied by a conference and a representative catalogue including a significant number of authors and institutions,[7] it is worthwhile to revisit the representational logic that underlies the Thracian exhibition as a phenomenon. There is no doubt that the latter is an essential promotional tool for contemporary Bulgaria, but it also raises some questions.


Promotional material of the exhibition “L’or des Thraces, trésors de Bulgarie” at Jacquemart-André Museum (Paris, 2006–2007). © Archives of Jacquemart-André Museum.

 One of the questions comes from the fact that the Thracians’ legacy is spread across the territories not only of Bulgaria but also of neighboring countries—especially Romania, Greece, and Turkey. This is why their national historical disciplines have elaborated a rather ambivalent partnership on this issue.[8] Although with different intensity, they all research and popularize the Thracian past and thus transform it into a topical scientific problematic on a global level. The perimeter of their joint efforts is nevertheless restricted, and this limitation is exemplified by such exhibitions. The very act of an international presentation tends to legitimize a given national state as an heir of a certain legacy, and this is a well-known approach. A significant illustration here, captured in archival photos, is the Bulgarian national flag that covered the display cases in the museums during some inauguration ceremonies in the 1980s.


Heritage beyond the Nation?

Admittedly, organizing glamorous events abroad that promote the official image of a country is understandable and expected within the framework of cultural diplomacy. The point here is whether, after becoming a member of the European Union, Bulgaria (and other respective states) should maintain the same strategy driven by national interests. Would it not be more appropriate for political and academic authorities to enable transborder and transnational cooperation in terms of cultural relations that would demonstrate the richness and complexity of Thracian heritage? Hopefully, such an approach, which reconsiders archaeological practices and broadens the horizon of historical reading, would be a modest response to rising nationalisms. Thus, I would argue for a new multinational Thracian exhibition that would gather together scholars as well as precious collections of national museums in Southeastern Europe and beyond.


Promotional material of the exhibition “L’Épopée des rois thraces. Découvertes archéologiques en Bulgarie” at the Louvre (Paris, 2015). © Archives of the Louvre Museum.


While academic and governmental inflexibility predominates in terms of advanced cooperation, we are also witnessing new tendencies. For example, in 2018 an agreement was signed between archaeological museums in North Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Serbia that envisages a joint exhibition on the Necropolis of Trebeništa. The ancient site is situated in the Republic of North Macedonia, but due to complex and controversial historical developments it was excavated consecutively by Bulgarian, Serbian, and Macedonian archaeologists. Thus, the objects that were found have been dispersed in the three countries, and their interpretations have been incoherent.

Time will show whether this project will succeed in reconciling national historiographies and overcoming the restrictive representational narratives that traditionally accompany heritage. Yet it is already a sign of positive and needed change. Surely such a collaborative process will be slow and difficult; it will require concrete efforts and provoke shared uneasiness. But if we manage to take such a step, we will have a greater chance of developing a more constructive understanding of the territory we live in. After all, this is the territory in which we will have to face many new challenges; and making out of the past something that further divides us is definitely not relevant to the more acute economic, social, and ecological threats that affect our lives. On the other hand, if we leave aside the representational aspects of heritage, perhaps there would be room for a type of archaeology that would be engaged in a different way. Instead of being a tool that supports tight national agendas, it could be a bridge between them. Instead of delivering “treasures” for the tourist industry that deepens the gap between local people and elitist touristic imagery, it could be in service of some larger issues or specific environmental needs of the explored region itself. In sum, going back “down to Earth,” tracking the old answers and new questions that Earth contains will eventually help us to realize that the presentation of ancient heritage in seemingly stable national categories is possible but is only one of many options.[9]


[1] On the concept of “Europe” see Delanty, Gerard. 1995. Inventing Europe: Idea, Identity, Reality. Basingstoke and London: Macmillan.

[2] See, e.g., Wolff, Larry. 1994. Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[3] See, e.g., Todorova, Maria. 2009. Imaging the Balkans (updated edn). New York: Oxford University Press; Goldsworthy, Vesna. 1998. Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination. New Haven and London: Yale University Press; and Bjelić, Dušan I., and Obrad Savić (eds). 2002. Balkan as Metaphor: Between Globalization and Fragmentation. Cambridge and London: MIT Press.

[4] Mishkova, Diana. 2018. Beyond Balkanism: The Scholarly Politics of Region Making. London and New York: Routledge.

[5] The history of this exhibition is thoroughly presented and analyzed in Roumentchéva, Sofia. 2014. Exposer les Thraces. Les collections thraces de la Bulgarie. Politique d’exposition officielle à l’étranger de 1958 à 2013. Mémoire de recherche. Paris: École du Louvre.

[6] The chronological and territorial aspects are the subject of ongoing academic debates. A recent overview of the question about the Thracians is available in Valeva, Julia, Emil Nankov, and Denver Graninger (eds). 2015. A Companion to Ancient Thrace. Wiley-Blackwell.

[7] Martinez, Jean-Luc, Néguine Mathieux, Alexandre Baralis, Milena Tonkova, and Totko Stoyanov (eds) 2015. L’épopée des rois thraces: Des guerres médiques aux invasions celtes 479-278 avant J.-C. Découvertes archéologiques en Bulgarie. Paris: Musée du Louvre/Somogy éditions d’Art.

[8] Marinov, Tchavdar. 2016. Nos ancêtres les Thraces. Usages idéologiques de l'Antiquité en Europe du Sud-Est. Paris: L’Harmattan.

[9] Part of this conclusion has been inspired in a certain way by Latour, Bruno. 2018. Down to Earth: Politics in the new climatic regime (translated by Catherine Porter). Cambridge: Polity Press.