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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.

 * * *

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.

*   *   *

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.

* * * 

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.

* * *


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.

* * *

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.

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[Report] Fall Session of Sylff Leaders Workshop 2018–19

November 16, 2018


An inaugural group of 20 Sylff fellows participated in the fall session of the newly launched Sylff Leaders Workshop from September 16 to 23, 2018. The fellows, who were selected from among 114 applicants, were a highly diverse group in terms of nationality, Sylff institution, field of specialization, and current occupation.

Sylff fellows and secretariat members in Sasayama.

Sylff fellows and secretariat members in Sasayama.

The main objective of the workshop was to provide graduated Sylff fellows an opportunity to experience diverse cultures through intensive discussions with people from different backgrounds and with varying viewpoints. Fellows were also able to deepen their ties to the Sylff community and gain new insights into Japan—not just the well-known aspects of the host country but also traditional and local areas off the beaten track.

About Sasayama

All participants had been scheduled to reach Sasayama via Osaka, but some were forced to switch routes, as Kansai International Airport was heavily damaged in the catastrophic typhoon just prior to the workshop. From Osaka, fellows traveled an hour and a half by bus to Sasayama in Hyogo Prefecture, where most of the sessions were held.

Sasayama is a scenic farming community of low-lying hills famous for such products as kuromame (black soybeans), mountain yams, chestnuts, and tea. It is also a former castle town, and the castle originally built in the seventeenth century has been partly reconstructed. Some buildings and neighborhoods retain the style and structure of the castle town.

Fields of harvest-ready rice in Sasayama.

Fields of harvest-ready rice in Sasayama.

A reconstructed section of Sasayama Castle.

A reconstructed section of Sasayama Castle.

Welcome remarks by Sanae Oda.

Welcome remarks by Sanae Oda.

Sanae Oda, executive director of the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research, welcomed the fellows on behalf of the Sylff Association secretariat. “One major aim in developing this program was to enable fellows to renew their understanding of the kind of leadership qualities we’re looking for,” she said in her remarks. “Society today has become very divisive. We need leaders who will bridge differences and promote understanding between people of diverse cultures and values. The message I hope you’ll take home from this workshop is that this is a role Sylff fellows should play in working for the common good.

“Our second aim is to help you enjoy your stay in Japan and gain a better understanding of the country,” she continued. “Through your two visits, I hope you’ll not only get to know each other better but also come to appreciate the many faces of Japan.

Activities in Sasayama

Being a community with a vibrant agricultural sector, Sasayama was an excellent setting for the workshop, whose topic was “The Future of Food Production in 2030.” When considered in terms of the “food system,” the issue is of overriding concern across the globe, as it encompasses not only agricultural production but also transport, manufacturing, retailing, consumption, and food waste. There are impacts on nutrition, health and well-being, the environment and ultimately, global food security.

Keynote speech by associate professor Yoshikawa.

Keynote speech by associate professor Yoshikawa.

The keynote speech for the three-day program in Sasayama was delivered by associate professor Narumi Yoshikawa of the Prefectural University of Hiroshima, an expert on the agricultural economy, who described Japanese initiatives in organic agriculture and grassroots efforts to strengthen ties between consumers and producers.

The workshop was facilitated by methodology experts from German-based Foresight Intelligence, which supports strategic foresight and planning processes in various organizations. After the plenary session, fellows broke out into smaller groups to discuss the topic under a subleader, delving into such issues as “food security through efficiency and resilience,” “ethical attitudes and awareness raising,” and “responsible and open innovation.” Fellows also conducted an online discussion with Philipp Grunewald of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, who, in addition to running a mushroom farm, has expertise in such fields as the global food production system and organic farming. The three days in Sasayama formed the foundation for the presentations by fellows on September 21 in Tokyo.

Plenary session.

Plenary session.

Breakout session 1.

Breakout session 1.

Breakout session 2.

Breakout session 2.

A majority of fellows stayed at Nipponia, a traditional wooden mansion that has been renovated into a ryokan, or Japanese guesthouse. On September 17, workshop participants were joined at dinner by Sasayama Mayor Takaaki Sakai, who introduced the city and welcomed the guests from overseas. On the following day, fellows got a taste of Japanese culture, choosing to participate in either the tea ceremony or a visit to a local sake brewery. In the evening, fellows enjoyed a Japanese style barbeque, sitting on small cushions on the wooden floor. 

Welcome dinner at Nipponia on September 17.

Welcome dinner at Nipponia on September 17.

Dinner at a robatayaki (Japanese-style barbeque) restaurant on September 18.

Dinner at a robatayaki (Japanese-style barbeque) restaurant on September 18.

Fellows participate in the tea ceremony.

Fellows participate in the tea ceremony.

Visit to a brewery for a sake tasting.

Visit to a brewery for a sake tasting.

Kyoto Trip

Before moving to Tokyo, fellows spent a night in Kyoto, visiting the Gion district, where they were entertained by maiko (female performers-in-training between 15 and 19 years old) and geiko (trained performers over 20). Maiko and geiko are part of a social tradition in going back to the eleventh century, performing for members of the upper class.

A geiko (left) and maiko (right) play games with fellows.

A geiko (left) and maiko (right) play games with fellows.

Tokyo Session

On September 20, fellows visited the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research, located on the 34th floor of a high-rise in the Roppongi area, for a session introducing the activities of Japanese think tanks and the current state of the Japanese economy. Foundation researchers later joined fellows for dinner on a yakatabune boat cruise in Tokyo Bay.

A session with policy experts in Tokyo on September 20.

A session with policy experts in Tokyo on September 20.

The following day, fellows presented the conclusions of their workshop discussions. They used a methodology called “visioning and road mapping” developed by Foresight Intelligence calling on fellows to start with a target year—in this case 2030—and to work backwards from potential scenarios. In thinking about the status of food production in 2030, fellows first discussed bad scenarios and then considered more desirable outcomes. They identified specific problems, developed the means to resolve such problems, and presented their visions of the future. These tasks were considered in reverse chronological order (using the “backcasting” approach), rather than by envisioning a future based on the current situation. Visioning and road mapping are tools enabling the normative construction of the future and are designed to remove current biases and to think about ethics and the values needed to build a desirable future.

Fellows divided into four groups to make their final presentations, expressing clearly how a desired future could be created.

Final presentation (1) on September 21 at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research.

Final presentation (1) on September 21 at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research.

Final presentation (2) by Rosangela Malachias (left of screen) and Stefan Buchholz (right).

Final presentation (2) by Rosangela Malachias (left of screen) and Stefan Buchholz (right).

Final presentation (3) by Kabira Namit (left) and Evgeniy Kandilarov (right).

Final presentation (3) by Kabira Namit (left) and Evgeniy Kandilarov (right).

Final presentation (4) by Andrew Prosser.

Final presentation (4) by Andrew Prosser.

The workshop ended with a lunch reception with Nippon Foundation President Takeju Ogata, who recounted how the first Sylff institution, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, came to receive a Sylff endowment and how Sylff as a program has developed thereafter.

The same 20 fellows will meet again in April 2019 in Beppu, renowned for its natural hot springs, located in Oita Prefecture. The workshop will be hosted by Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, a Sylff institution located in the city. Fellows will wrap up their discussions and make their final presentations.

The workshop was launched to facilitate networking and to give fellows a fuller appreciation of the rich diversity of the Sylff community. The Sylff Association secretariat intends to offer this program biennially and is already planning ahead to the next round.

A group photo at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research on September 20.

A group photo at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research on September 20.

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Catalyzing Cultural Revitalization in Western Province, Solomon Islands

June 7, 2018
By 19632

Indigenous knowledge and practice are critical on Kolombangara Island, but they are often not visible in discussions of conservation and resource management. In response, Sylff fellow Joe McCarter and the Kolombangara Island Biodiversity Conservation Association (KIBCA) initiated a workshop to discuss cultural revitalization, as well as teach practical documentation skills to rangers and community members. The workshop was held in Hunda, a village on Kolombangara Island in the Solomon Islands’ Western Province, and was led by representatives of the Vanuatu Cultural Center (VCC). The VCC team included three fieldworkers (ni-Vanuatu researchers) and the head of the Vanuatu Women’s Culture Program. The workshop covered a variety of topics, including the challenges and ethics of cultural maintenance, techniques and best practice, and the importance of such activities. On the final day, the group came up with several action points and next steps, including community and home-based recording and maintenance and agreed to create a new network focused on Kolombangara Island and run through KIBCA.


Project Background

Indigenous knowledge and practice are important components of everyday life in the Solomon Islands. Most people live in rural areas, and gardening, fishing, and food gathering are the basis of income and nutrition. Most land is managed under customary tenure, and people’s links to the land can be traced back several generations. Local languages and cultures are important and diverse, and cultural practices guide interactions and governance over much of the country.

On Kolombangara Island, a high volcanic island in Western Province, local knowledge and practice play a key role. Over 6,000 people live on the island, largely in small rural communities on land that is managed under customary tenure. Kolombangara is a biodiversity hotspot, and KIBCA has been working since 2008 to coordinate and promote biodiversity conservation activities around the island. However, there has been little attention to the maintenance of language and kastom (a Solomon Island Pijin concept referring to history and tradition), and KIBCA has been seeking to increase its focus on maintenance and revitalization.

This work is driven by fears that elements of kastom are being lost. In the present day, local language and knowledge are often not valued by education systems, cash economies, and the time pressure of everyday life. For example, school systems usually focus on Western educational techniques and may not support traditional forms of knowledge transmission. There is concern that this may lead to the erosion of knowledge, practice, and language over time. In everyday life, knowledge of language and history can help students to excel at school and can guide healthy food practice based on local and organic food produce.

Moreover, and more pressingly, ongoing commercial logging on Kolombangara continues to threaten sacred sites and people’s links to land. Often, logging operations will destroy cultural sites (for example, old village sites or shrines), which in turn weakens knowledge and the cultural histories associated with place. Because land is under customary tenure, and this knowledge is often orally transmitted, these activities can result in people losing their claim to land and a reduction of the biocultural values of the landscape.

The Workshop

With generous funding from Sylff Leadership Initiatives, KIBCA coordinator Ferguson Vaghi and Joe McCarter worked together to bring participants to Kolombangara the maintenance of knowledge and practice. This was relevant to KIBCA’s work because it focuses on maintaining ecosystem services and values associated with intact biodiversity areas. Vaghi led and facilitated the workshop, set workshop goals and objectives, and liaised with the Hunda community to arrange accommodation and housing for the workshop. I assisted with designing the workshop, liaising with the Vanuatu group, arranging logistics, and setting the agenda for the meeting.

Participants outside the venue in Hunda.

The major goal of the workshop was to allow the chance for exchange between Kolombangara and fieldworkers from the Vanuatu Cultural Center (VCC). The VCC group comprised Evelyne Bulegih, Numaline Mahana, Chief Jimesan Sanhambath, and Chief Joachim Moleli. The VCC has been working for over 30 years to promote the maintenance of traditional knowledge, practice, and language. The heart of its operation is the presence of a nationwide network of over 100 “fieldworkers”, volunteer indigenous anthropologists who meet annually and are trained in various forms of cultural documentation. They typically work within their own community to record cultural histories and traditional knowledge, which are then stored in the community and in the national archives. The fieldworkers also act as the gatekeepers for external agencies seeking to work on cultural or social issues in Vanuatu, providing advice and guidance that ensure that ethical concerns and intellectual property are appropriately addressed.

The objectives of the workshop were to:

  1. Provide training in methods for documentation of oral histories and traditional knowledge and practice
  2. Provide training in methods for mapping and recording of sacred sites using GIS technology
  3. Provide a forum for sharing and exchange between Solomon Islander conservation practitioners and ni-Vanuatu indigenous anthropologists
  4. Produce and publish a short article for the national media about the importance of cultural knowledge and practice for the management of the environment

Attendance varied between 20 and 23 people across the three days of the workshop. Participants included KIBCA staff, among whom were four rangers (responsible for carrying out KIBCA’s work, including enforcement and awareness activities); community representatives from the neighboring communities of Votuana, Cana, and Ireke, as well as from the host community Hunda; and community representatives from Vavanga and Kalina (Parara Island), which also form part of a biocultural network. These representatives included two village chiefs. Attendance was largely male, but there were at least five women attending each day of the workshop.

The meeting was held at Hunda, a small village of around 200 people on Kolombangara. All catering and accommodation were provided by the village.

Vanuatu and New Zealand workshop participants: from left to right, Joachim Moleli, Evelyne Bulegih, Joe McCarter, Numaline Mahana, and Jimesan Sanhambath.

Outline of Events

Wednesday, February 21

The aim of day one was to understand the context of work in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. The meeting was opened by the chief of Hunda village and then formally begun by Vaghi. During the day, participants worked to compile lists of challenges around the maintenance of kastom and culture in their communities. The Vanuatu fieldworkers were able to provide input to these solutions with their practical experience. Discussions particularly focused on governance and how it was important to record knowledge on genealogies and leadership protocol; the participants felt that one of the key issues in the communities at the moment was a lack of legitimate leadership, combined with a lack of respect from youth. In the final part of the day, the Vanuatu fieldworkers went into greater depth about their work, including a discussion of some of the challenges of maintaining kastom and culture in Vanuatu.

Waiting for the workshop to start on day one.

Thursday, February 22

The aim of the second day was to pass on skills to assist with some of the challenges that were identified on the first day. The day began with a discussion of the “kastom economy” and the ways in which tradition and culture intersect with daily life in the village environment. For example, Chief Moleli discussed an initiative in his community, Tavendrua, to use traditional wealth items such as yams and pigs to pay teachers in the kastom school, while Mrs. Mahana discussed traditional marriage arrangements on Tanna Island. Participants then split into small groups to document the kastom economy in their communities. These groups focused on a variety of topics including traditional medicines, fishing techniques, and exchange items. In the afternoon, there was a practical session on the maintenance and recording of kastom and culture. Each of the fieldworkers gave a talk and held trainings on an area within their expertise: Mrs. Bulegih discussed the written recording and storage of kastom stories, Mrs. Mahana the written descriptions of weaving and woven products, Chief Moleli the recording of kastom stories, and Chief Sanhambath the use of handheld units to document sacred sites. The focus on all these presentations was to try to make sure that participants understood that technology should not be central for this work—that it is better to record things in a basic format (e.g., with pen and paper) and store it securely, to ensure that it is accessible to future generations.

Small group work on day two (photo by Piokera Holland).

Friday, February 23

The aim of the third day was to define next steps. Throughout the day, participants worked in small groups to define what practical steps could be taken to halt the erosion of kastom and culture. These were discussed in a closing plenary session. Topics included home-based recording with family members, consultation throughout the communities to decide which components of traditional knowledge and practice are at risk, and a cultural documentation network run through KIBCA. The group decided it was important to maintain linkages with the Vanuatu group, through Facebook and email, so that lessons could continue to be shared.

Saturday, February 24, and Sunday, February 25

On Saturday and Sunday, the Vanuatu group traveled to Imbu Rano field station on Kolombangara. During this trip they were able to observe KIBCA’s biodiversity conservation work in practice, as well as learn about threats to the area and the challenges that the rangers face on a daily basis. 

Outputs and Outcomes

The workshop was lively, well attended, and able to produce the outputs that were intended. These included:

  1. Provision of a discussion forum and practical trainings around the maintenance of kastom and culture on Kolombangara
  2. Initiation of efforts on Kolombangara to maintain kastom and culture, at a household level and through the networks of KIBCA
  3. Creation of linkages and exchange between Vanuatu fieldworkers, biodiversity conservation rangers, and community members
  4. A draft newspaper article, which has been submitted for publication in the Solomon Star and Vanuatu Daily Post (find it in the full report)

We are confident that these outputs will lead to a range of outcomes. For one, this workshop gave the Solomon Island participants an introduction to the skills needed to monitor, record, and maintain cultural knowledge and practice, including the mapping of sacred sites around their home communities. More importantly, the discussions and activities of the workshop provided a forum for dialogue on the value of cultural knowledge and practice, which can sometimes be lost in the day-to-day focus on livelihoods and living. The participants agreed to some solid and measurable next steps, so we are confident that this workshop was a first step toward an ongoing network of cultural monitors and the maintenance of knowledge and practice on Kolombangara.

Over the longer term, we see these efforts as being a small but necessary contribution to the overall goal of maintaining the biocultural resilience of rural communities in the Solomon Islands. Both cultural and biological diversity are critical to the ongoing vitality of communities, and we believe that more of these kinds of activities and discussions are needed into the future.

Personal Reflection

From both a personal and a professional standpoint, it was a pleasure to be involved in organizing this meeting. On a personal level, it was a privilege to reconnect with the VCC group after several years, and it was exciting to begin to foster some dialogue around the importance of kastom and culture on Kolombangara. The VCC has been a regionally leading institution, and there would be much to be gained from further collaboration. From a professional standpoint, it is clear that the maintenance of knowledge and practice should form a key plank of ongoing efforts to support conservation work around the island. This work aligns well with other Kolombangara projects, including a push by KIBCA to seek national park status for the area above 400 m. The partnership with KIBCA was absolutely critical to the success of the meeting, and while there were challenges (for example, arranging logistics for Hunda, setting the agenda remotely, and the difficulties of scheduling across several different calendars), Vaghi and his team worked hard to make the meeting a success. I look forward to our working together to turn the discussions in the workshop into solid progress over the remainder of 2018 and 2019. 

Find more details of the project in the original report.