The why and how of “Dialogues with Ethnography” (video)


Sociolinguistic scales and more (video)

In this 37 minute talk, I review the ways in which the notion of scales entered and developed in my work on sociolinguistic globalization. The message is: you cannot proceed without scales, but scales alone won’t get you very far.

A review of “Overheating” (Thomas Hylland Eriksen)


Jan Blommaert 

Overheating: An anthropology of accelerated change. Thomas Hylland Eriksen. Pluto Press: London 2016, 192pp. $30, paper, ISBN 9780745336343.

(An abridged version of this review will appear in the Journal of Anthropological Research)

This book is iconic in the Peircian sense: its structure and style resemble, “mirror” even, its contents. It offers a mountain of information and even more food for thought, and it does so in a text that can be read at lightning pace. For those who have read Eriksen’s earlier Tyranny of the Moment (2001) the topic and style are familiar: Eriksen provides an update here of his earlier statements on the present stage of globalized modernity as characterized by spacetime compression and acceleration, and by issues of interacting – clashing – scales as defining many of the problems currently experienced in various parts of the world.

EriksenThe world, indeed, is the space within which Eriksen sets his book, and this world is trop plein, argues Eriksen – not just with people, but even more with the processes, products and side-effects they generate at an incredible rate. Eriksen writes an anthropology of the world-in-motion, and being an anthropologist he does so by means of a superb intellectual device: the alteration of statistics to sketch the higher scale-levels of the issues he addresses, with ethnographic vignettes documenting the lower scale-levels of the same issues. These issues are laid out in the five core chapters 3 to 7, on energy, mobility, cities, waste and information overload, caught between an introductory chapter dominated by the spectacular growth of the world’s population (chapter 1) and a chapter laying out a conceptual vocabulary (chapter 2),and a final chapter in which things are pulled together in a vision of clashing scales (chapter 8).

Le monde est trop plein is the motto that directs the argument. In the twentieth century, the world’s population rose from less than two billion to almost seven billion, and this massive increase has gradually shaped a scale level unknown to earlier generations of anthropologists and social scientists. There are, for instance, presently more people living in urban areas than the entire world’s population in 1920. Distinctions between the ‘urban’ and the ‘rural’ that were so important in the formative stages of anthropology, and indeed the entire conception of the  ‘local’ as the circumscription within which ethnographers operated, consequently, now have to be reimagined as dispersed over a variety of interacting scales. The interactions of such scales constrain and condition what happens ‘locally’, and Eriksen draws on some of Bateson’s vocabulary to define the often uneasy effects of such cross-scale frictions – the frictions causing the ‘overheating’ of the processes he describes. There are runaway processes, treadmill syndromes, double binds, and flexibility issues – concepts all referring to the loss of local agency, stability and control – generated by a general crisis of reproduction – the incapacity to extend current modes of life into the future – framed by multiscalar neoliberal engines of global scope. This, Eriksen explains in his final chapter, leads to global issues of trust, of risk-experience, of uncertainty and instability.

We have, for instance, witnessed a phenomenal expansion of the wage-labor population over the past half century, and this process largely went hand in hand with the growth of superdiverse megacities around the world. This high-scale process triggered several others. It triggered a crisis in energy consumption and, inextricably related to this, in pollution and surplus waste production, as well as in the growth of a huge informal economy and a global increase of exploitation and inequality alongside wealth accumulation and extraction. Eriksen’s well-chosen ethnographic vignettes demonstrate how people around the world have to find ways – usually new ways – to manoeuver the complexities of everyday life economically, socially and culturally, in a continuous but nonlinear and often paradoxical loop between local needs and higher-scale constraints and affordances. Previously well-functioning methods have ceased to be useful, and trusted systems of authority and sociopolitical equilibrium have equally expired as valid problem solvers.

The core argument, thus put, is reminiscent of that developed decades ago in Fernand Braudel’s description of three layers of time, where such layers corresponded to degrees of consciousness and individual agency. Typically, people would be aware of the évenémentiel in their world, since it corresponds to their own bio-chronological scales and allows them degrees of responsiveness and even anticipation. The higher-level layers of time, however, are rarely a matter of direct consciousness (other than through the mediation of événéments), and the longue durée – the time of climate changes and systemic transformations – is often practically unconscious as a layer of human experience and activity. As to agency: one or more individuals could have influenced (and did influence, in fact) the Battle of Waterloo, while it takes the combined efforts of many millions of people to have effects on climate change. Since, in Eriksen’s view, higher-scale processes now become far more palpable as effects on everyday life, there is a growing “tension, typical of modernity, between the system world and the life-world, between the standardised and the unique, the universal and the particular” (7).

This world, in its present state, is new, Eriksen underscores, and its birth year is 1991, when the Cold War as we knew it ended. There will forever be those who jump up as soon as “newness” is mentioned, and will argue that nothing much has changed. But Eriksen is adamant: the explosive expansion of the world’s pool of wage labor, for instance, has transformed not just the entire economic system (with industrial delocalization as a typical phenomenon, resulting in what Wallerstein, long ago, foresaw as a new global division of labor). It also transformed the social system, creating a worldwide new class called “precariat” by Guy Standing, and doubling, between 1990 and 2010, the number of South-North migrants from 40 to 80 million (59-60).


The point Eriksen makes – often implicit – is: scale matters. Even if there was global tourism prior to the 1990s, for instance, the fact that the number of tourist trips around the world nearly doubled between 1995 and 2012 (from about 500 million to 1 billion) is itself a social, cultural and economic phenomenon without precedent, creating not just entirely new forms of cultural encounters but also new forms of cities and infrastructures not constructed by local needs but shaped by needs to cater for visitors, and new forms of consumer markets, flows of capital and modes of employment. More concretely: when Spain welcomed 15 million holiday makers in 1979, critics already bemoaned the disastrous transformation of the Spanish costas; in 2015, the number of tourists had risen to 60 million, or 120% of the country’s population, with equivalent effects on not just the costas, but the entire country. A shift in scale is a qualitative shift, argues Eriksen, transforming the phenomena themselves, and not just a shift in numbers that leaves older fundamental structures intact.

Consequently, such shifts invite a new anthropology, for, when Lévi-Strauss wrote his pessimistic lines on the “escapism of traveling” in Tristes Tropiques, “the number of tourist arrivals in the world was about 2 per cent of the present figures” (64). The anthropologist’s world, thus, has drastically changed, and some of the runaway processes and double binds that used to be relatively ‘niched’ in an earlier stage have become systemic now – exceptions have become rules. Since most of our intellectual and bureaucratic tools for addressing the world have their roots firmly in such earlier stages of development of our societies, they operate as anachronisms, often accentuating the problem and creating a void of responsibility and potency for change; consequently “in the multiscalar kinds of societies in which most contemporaries live, all forms of blaming are present simultaneously” (143).

Eriksen extends this argument over a vast range of domains, succinctly pointing towards origins and futures and focusing on the present state of the processes and phenomena he examines. Many of the facts he submits in this book are rather well known, but they usually only reach us piecemeal, in scattered and disintegrated forms. Eriksen’s achievement is not just the synthetic form in which he combines tremendous amounts of data and information, even if precisely this synthesis makes this book mandatory reading for students, for whom, as participants in the huge changes described here, the scope and speed of such changes often remain cryptic and experiences anecdotal. His achievement is to have sketched a colossal domain for anthropologists to rethink, reinvent and reimagine. Some accelerated change in our theoretical and methodological development is needed – this is the food for thought offered in Overheating.



Pride, prejudice and pedantry

language: a feminist guide

Last year I discovered the perfect gift for the supercilious arse in your life: a mug emblazoned with the legend ‘I am silently correcting your grammar’. grammar-mug The existence of this item testifies to the widely-held belief that sneering at other people’s language-use is not just acceptable, it’s actually a virtue. When the subject is language, you can take pride in being a snob; you can even display your exquisite sensitivity by comparing yourself to a genocidal fascist (‘I’m a bit of a grammar Nazi: I can’t bear it when people use language incorrectly’).

On Twitter there’s a ‘Grammar Police’ bot whose mission is to belittle random strangers by tweeting unsolicited corrections of their ‘defective grammar’. Because, according to its profile, ‘publishing defective grammar abases oneself’.

‘Abases *oneself*’? Try ‘one’, or better, ‘you’. And maybe get your thesaurus out, because I don’t think ‘abase’ is the word you want.

What I’ve…

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2016: the bad, the bad and the ugly

language: a feminist guide

Once again tis the season to look back on the last twelve months, and since we’re talking about 2016, that may not make for uplifting reading (unless your heroes are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and President-Elect Donald Trump). If the Words of the Year chosen by dictionaries are any guide, the mood among English-speakers is darker than it was a year ago. Whereas Oxford’s choice in 2015 was the ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji, in 2016 it has gone for ‘post-truth’; other dictionaries’ selections have included ‘paranoid’, ‘surreal’ and ‘xenophobia’.

The reasons why this year sucked were not primarily to do with language, but language played a part—in some cases quite a prominent part. So, this review will be more about the lowlights than the highlights. Here are six of the worst:

Bantering bigots. In my 2015 annual round-up I named ‘banter’ as the word I’d…

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Engaging superdiversity? Yes, very engaging


Jan Blommaert 

Engaging Superdiversity is edited by Karel Arnaut, Martha Sif Karrebaek, Max Spotti and Jan Blommaert, and will be published in December 2016 by Multilingual Matters, Bristol, in the Encounters series.

As all of us know, there is a tremendous pressure in the academic system at present to operate as an individual in a competitive “market” of science focused on deliverables – or more precisely, a market of money for science and other more symbolic and status-related perks. All of these elements – individualism, competition and result-driven orientation – are fundamentally unscientific, and render our lives as science workers increasingly less interesting. Science is a collective endeavor characterized by solidarity and focused on processes of knowledge construction. Why else do we need references at the end of our publications, than to illustrate how we have learned from others in a perpetual process of critical and productive dialogue?

This critical reflex motivated, almost a decade ago, a small team of scholars to join forces in a consortium called InCoLaS (International Consortium on Language and Superdiversity) – a “dream team” of people who decided to care and share, to explore domains only superficially touched by inquiry, mobilizing and maximizing each other’s resources in the process,  and to do all this without a pre-set target or road map. After all, exploration is not the same as driving in a limo on a highway with the GPS on: by definition, you don’t know where it will take you. There is no “draft proposal”; there are ideas.

This mode of collaboration turned out to be immensely “profitable”, to use the terms of the market. Several high-profile publications emerged, and our buzzword “superdiversity” has become a modest celebrity in its own right, attracting what must be seen as the ultimate intellectual compliment: controversy. There are “believers” and “non-believers”, and both camps have had, over the past years, sometimes heated debates over the value of the word “superdiversity”.

We ourselves don’t really care about that word. Sometimes one needs a new word simply to examine the validity of the older ones – the word is then just a sort of stimulus to shed some of the attributes and frames inscribed in the older ones; and not the word is central, but the ideas it points to and the data it can help explain. Whether research is convincing or not rarely depends on which words are used to write it down; usually it depends on the quality of analysis and argument.

“Engaging Superdiversity” offers another set of studies on language and superdiversity, drawn from one of the key features of our collective mode of work: team workshops in which we listen and discuss the work of our team members – senior as well as more junior researchers – and insert their results in the collective explorative process described earlier. In these workshops, all of us are “free” – free to come up with unfinished ideas, unsolved problems, struggles with complex data. The joint work of critical dialogue, usually, results in products that are, to say the least, engaging.

This collection of essays, more than any other publication so far, gives people a sense of the ambiance in InCoLaS activities. It covers the terrains we find important – inequality, the online-offline nexus, power – and expands the theoretical and methodological framing of the process of exploration. There is a very large amount of new things in this book (for the benefit of the “non-believers” who question what is so new about superdiversity), and some of the chapters will, I believe, have considerable impact in the field.

I joined the editorial team rather late in the game, and my gaze is thus, perhaps, a bit more that of a detached spectator than Karel’s, Martha’s and Max’s. So let me say this. When reviewing manuscripts for journals, book proposals, or even student’s essays, I always make a distinction between work that is good and work that is interesting. Most work I see is good, in the sense that there is nothing wrong with it, other than that I would never read it: it’s not interesting. “Engaging Superdiversity” is good and interesting – extraordinarily so – and I am proud to see it in print.




Beyond ISDS: An international court for economic crimes?


Jan Blommaert

The negotiations between the EU and Canada about the CETA treaty have been stalled, initially by just two regional parliaments in Belgium, but gradually by a broader front of EU members, all of whom take exception to the Investment Court System (ICT), a specific variety of what has become knowm as ISDS – “Investor State Dispute Settlement”. The objections are not technical but profound – they revolve around a principle.

The principle was laid down a couple of centuries ago, as part of what we now call Enlightenment: it is the principle of equality under the law. Put simply, it implies that a Duke and a beggar must be subject to the same laws, be tried in the same way for the same crime, receive the same sanctions, enjoy the same rights and have access to the same legal instruments and procedures. It’s the very foundation of what has now, almost universally, been accepted as the democratic system of law and order.

Remarkably, ISDS is an exception to that. In the current ISDS systems, of the two parties involved – investors and states – only one of them has the right to initiate procedures. And that is the fatal flaw in the system.

Advocates of ISDS do have a point though: scale. They invoke economic globalization as the compelling reason why supranational jurisdictions are necessary. The logic is: transnational business and finance operate on the basis of a global strategy, and the scale level of nation-state legislation should not impede or disrupt the structure of such global manoeuvers. Hence ISDS, as an instrument to “correct” nation-state impediments and stay on track of the chosen business strategy.

It is not a bad argument; but it, once again, begs the question as to why an ISDS should not be built on the equality principle, recognizing that the nation-state scale level is also an obstacle for the other party in the game. Concretely: corporations have access to an international legal procedure when their global interests are endangered, but Volkswagen can only be prosecuted nationally for its software fraud, even if that fraud was a global phenomenon.

And a government cannot, for instance, internationally prosecute a corporation for the social and collateral costs of making thousands of its workers redundant in spite of very large profits made in that country (think of the worldwide reorganization announced by ING bank some weeks ago). Such actions, motivated by – exactly – the global corporate strategy, force governements to spend enormous amounts of cash in unemployment benefits, retraining and reskilling of laid-off workers, sometimes the reconversion and sanitation of abandoned industrial sites with severe and lasting ecological damage, and so forth – costs often weighing heavily on precarious national budgets for many years. And they are direct effects of economic globalization.

One can easily think of numerous other issues in which the weakness of the nation-state scale level as an actor in global economic processes is exploited by business and finance. The Panama Papers and Offshoreleaks brought shocking evidence of the complex systems of tax evasion deployed by business and finance corporations, all based, exactly, on movements of money, legal statuses and accounting practices from one country’s jurisdiction to another, keeping profits out of reach of the tax offices of the countries where they were earned. At present, very little can be done against it – the legal system of one country reaches its limits where that of another country starts. And within this fragmented world of jurisdictions, those forms of tax evasion are “not illegal”, as it is often repeated. But the scale of economic damage done in several parts of the world matches the scale of profit made from such practices of playing off these parts of the world against each other.

So why not take ISDS one step further, and recognize that the globalization of business and finance does indeed require an international jurisdiction, but a real one, one in which all parties have access to the same legal instruments. Why not think of an international court for economic crimes, modeled, perhaps, on the present International Court of Justice in The Hague – an idea which has been around for a while? It would add a quite commonsensical dimension lacking from the present ISDS system: that “Investor State Disputes” may have either one of both parties in either of the roles in the dispute – perpetrator as well as victim. And that true justice can only be done when this elementary principle is restored.