Institute of Social Anthropology

Institute of Social Anthropology


"The empty chairs - on the tedious constraints of trans-local research." By Dr. des. Johanna Mugler

leere Sessel in einer Empfangshalle eines Hotels

February 2018

I was waiting on one of these empty chairs for my interview partner at the JW Marriott in Washington DC, 1331 Pennsylvannia Ave. Just around the corner from the White House and the Treasury Department. The comfortable leather chair and the soft music in the background made me think that this was going to be a conducive place for an expert interview.

I am studying the negotiation of international tax norms with a focus on the G20 OECD BEPS “Base Erosion Profit Shifting” initiative. I am interested in describing “who is in charge” of this major reform project in practice (since the old rules have been criticized by various publics as being unfair, because they facilitate aggressive tax avoidance of large Multi-national corporations).

My field is the community of international tax lawmakers. They come together to address common problems and to come up with workable rules and model solutions in the area of international tax. They work at the OECD in Paris, at Treasuries, Finance Ministries, and Tax administrations in G20 and OECD countries. For private international law firms, the big 4 accountancy firms, universities and large multinational corporations. Most people I speak to have an hour to spare. Then I will not see them again for many months.

I have been preparing for this interview for weeks. The first time I have spoken to this man—a former high level official from the US Treasury—was at an international tax conference in Washington DC. The US, amongst the experts I study, is admired for its competence and sophisticated technical tax expertise, which it contributes to the over-all clarification of international tax law. But, the US is also accused for doing what they want - irrespective of what they demand from other countries. My contact is very down-to-earth. He encouraged me—despite his busy schedule—to contact him again to continue talking. He is patient with me—a “non-tax person”, as many of my interview partners refer to lay-people.

But he does not arrive. I am stressing out. It was just yesterday at the Georgetown University Law Centre (also in D.C) that someone had cancelled an interview the minute we were supposed to start. While I am aware that the experts I talk to often do not know how their day will plan out—as a result they constantly need to re-schedule— I am nevertheless in this moment frustrated with the methods of my discipline.

The making of international tax law is a trans-local and multi-local phenomenon. Over the last few months I have been travelling extensively to speak to international tax experts and to observe them at work. The geographical dispersion of the field sites I am studying is a serious constraint for anthropological research, “given ethnography’s focus on local places, on small scale, more or less observable social units and the cultural meanings and practices that constitute them” as Sally Engle Merry stated (2006:980). Especially if we do not reside in these places for extended periods of time as we used to do.

Where the hell is he? My plane to Switzerland will not allow for much re-scheduling. At 1.50 pm I receive an email – which he had sent 50 Minutes earlier – that he had “a 1pm pop up” and that he can offer me 2pm, at his office, around the corner from the hotel. Slightly out of breath, I jumped right in there and I made the best use of “my” hour. We talked about how he learned to speak, in Paris, as the monolithic entity “the US”, what responsibilities and what constituencies constrained his actions as a top negotiator and about the general relationship between the regulators and the regulated.

The picture of the empty chair is for me a reminder that as an anthropologist you need to be incredibly patient. Especially when you study a phenomenon like global trans-governmental and professional networks, which forces you to give up a clear regional focus. These networks are on the one hand feared due to their exclusivity and lack of transparency, but are also needed in an increasingly economically globalized world. As an anthropologist, I have the privilege of time and I should use it to make the complex decision-making processes of these private and official experts more legible to a wider audience. I should not worry about waiting. That is a waste of time.



Former Blog postings

January 2018

This picture shows Christina (pseudonym). She’s a tea plantation worker in Assam, a region in Northeast India. In the picture, Christina has folded her hands together in front of her – a common gesture of greeting in India. She has draped a colourful flowered Sari over her right shoulder. Underneath, we can see a white Sari blouse peeking out. But what really attracts one’s attention in this picture is Christina’s laughter. It is partly hidden behind her hands, but somehow manages to capture the whole photo: A smile, which is so broad, that it spreads across her whole face, making small wrinkles appear on her nose. But what is hidden behind Christina’s laughter?

Between 2014 and 2017, I conducted fieldwork on tea plantations in Assam as part of my doctoral research. Time and again I experienced people answering my questions with long silences, performances, songs or laughter. Mostly, this seemed to occur when they were unable to put their feelings into words. In the following, I describe such a moment with Christina.

On a Sunday morning in November 2015, Christina invited me to her home. It was the day on which I took the above picture of her. In search of a secure livelihood, Christina had migrated to Assam from a drought-, poverty-, and famine-stricken region in central India – just like many others had. Most tea plantation workers migrated to Assam in search of a better life. Just over half of the migrant workers on the tea plantations belong to India’s indigenous population. They are called Adivasis. When I asked Christina that day what it meant for her to be indigenous, I was answered with a long silence. Then, after a while, she turned to me and said: ‘We are the poorest of the poor and the lowest. We are the ones who do all the hard and dirty work’. And then, suddenly, Christina leapt to her feet and began to sing a song in her mother tongue. She was laughing so hard that she had to start singing the song several times anew. Later I asked Christina to share the lyrics with me. Roughly, the song can be translated into English as follows: ‘When we cut the tea bushes, the skin on our hands bursts and our blood flows everywhere – We Adivasis are brothers and sisters’. I asked Christina what the song meant to her and again she burst out laughing, burying her face in her hands. Then, finally, she explained: ‘Actually, it’s a sad song. It’s a song about our suffering…’.

Maybe Christina was referring to the tough labour conditions on the plantations. Or maybe the song for her was about the low salaries on the plantations, causing  workers to be malnourished and die prematurely. Or perhaps Christina wanted to express her personal suffering, such as having to start working on the plantation when she was only 10 years old and having to raise her five children alone after her husband’s early death. It is also possible that for her the song stood for the continuity of her suffering, extending back into her childhood when she was still living in her home state with her family. She told me that her family was forced to migrate, because they were dying of hunger and thirst. Probably it is a bit of all this that causes Christina to suffer, like so many other workers who came to the tea plantations in Assam in hope of a better future.

But why was Christina laughing when she shared her deep sorrow with me? How can we, as social anthropologists, interpret such non-verbal expressions and put them into words? Did Christina maybe want to share her suffering with me without making me sad, as my research assistant suspected at the time? Or, as I then spontaneously thought, did she maybe have to laugh, so she herself could endure the severity of her suffering? Christina was not the only worker who laughed out loud while telling me about her suffering. I still do not know for sure what lies behind Christina’s laughter. And I still lack the words – which (apart from in visual anthropology) constitute the main medium in our scientific work – to describe it. But maybe, in the end, a song, a performance or a picture is worth a thousand words.


December 2017

What do the Christmas dinner at your friend’s grandma’s house, a party evening and the round of introduction in your new hockey team have in common? Exactly. It’s the look on the face of the person who simply wanted to ask an innocent small-talk question. When you answer “I study social anthropology” maybe you’re lucky and the girlfriend of the person’s cousin “studies exactly the same”. Otherwise: “Well… What? Social… err… what is that exactly?”
What is social anthropology? Even in the fifth semester I have a hard time answering this question shortly. In the summer weeks between the fourth and the fifth semester, as part of a course, we had the opportunity to conduct a first short field study to try out our discipline’s methods “in the wild”. Ever since I spent some time on an alp for this purpose I’d like to show this photograph to the asking person and respond: “Social anthropology? That’s hard to outline that quickly, but the whole thing smells more of cow pat than I ever thought!”

A., help me for my text. Tell me, what does social anthropology smell like in the first semester? For me, anthropology has the smell of many new things. It smells like perceiving and understanding the diverse behaviour of humans. Alright! What about the smell of freshly printed texts? Of course, we have to read a lot! A lot in English, too!

Social anthropology, that’s visiting a place, full of questions about the people living there but also willing to contribute something.
Social anthropology, that’s our professor’s advice: “Ah, you’re going to an alp? Maybe you should learn to milk a cow before, so that you can make yourselves useful.”
And what smell reminds you of social anthropology? Since you’re in the seventh semester you dealt with it for a while now. Well that’s a hard question! Spontaneously? Cumin!

Back to the photograph. Our research interest wasn’t focused primarily on cow dung. My colleague and I wanted to learn more about the common management of the alp and about different perceptions of identity. The herder on the other hand didn’t really care about the interesting theories in our books and refused rigorously to be interviewed. No problem! Because anthropology, that’s grabbing a shovel and starting to walk with the herder, to pile up manure and at the same time getting to know him. Through these conversations we begin to understand what subjects are relevant to him and how many factors play together to keep this alp system working.
Furthermore we learn important things that we would’ve never asked about. Especially this “Tour de Cow Pat”. The small piles of manure shape the scenery of the alp pastures of Appenzell. That’s something typical, as the herder explains proudly. If the manure is just laying around everywhere the pasture would be harmed, because underneath only weed can grow, instead of grass. That is the reason behind the daily tour around the alp: collecting the dung to pile it up. The good land is rare in Appenzell, that’s why this daily hassle is
undertaken. “You people in Bern, you don’t do that.” Interesting, we say and take a short note on the piece of paper in our pockets. In the evening we understand the herder’s lifeworld not only out of theoretical considerations. Our whole body is tired, we wash the smell of manure from our hands and are delighted by the scent of freshly cooked “Älplermakronen”.
See, that is social anthropology for me, I’d like to tell the asking person. To switch now and then book for dung shovel and to dive into a reality that might be unfamiliar and exhausting but certainly enriching. Anthropology is as multifaceted, colourful and of variable odours as the people it studies. And this is why the student cherishes her discipline so much that neither dung shovel nor conversations about cumin nor tricky rounds of introduction really throw her out of balance.

November 2017

In 1999, after two years of Chinese language studies in China, I decided to return home to Poland overland via northwest China and Kazakhstan. After Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991 in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, a bi-weekly train connection had temporarily been established between Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital, and Berlin to facilitate the ‘return’ of the Germans in Kazakhstan to Germany. On the way to Astana, where I would board the train, I wanted to travel along some of the ancient caravan routes that crossed the region divided today administratively into provinces of Qinghai and Xinjiang in northwest China. I scheduled nearly three weeks for this 3500 km bus journey, after which my student visa would irrevocably expire.
However, the pace of my travel turned out slower than expected. Many roads which existed as bold lines on my maps were, in fact, hardly-visible dirt tracks through the stone and sand deserts of the arid northwest. On the increasingly decelerating journey, I finally got stuck for good at the Qinghai-Xinjiang border, in a small village which grew around one of China’s largest asbestos mines. Summer landslides blocked the road through the mountains on the Xinjiang side. After strolling through the moon-like landscape for a day, waiting for something to happen, I gave up the idea of moving forward and turned back to embark on a roundabout journey via western Qinghai and Gansu which added some extra 1500 km to what I had originally planned. This journey, for a change, brought me into massive sandstorms which further delayed the travel, making me seriously worry that the visa would expire before I reached China’s western border.
My trip coincided with the last year before the launching of China’s Open up the West program in 2000. While the agenda of the program has been very complex, it is safe to say that increasing China’s territorial integration through infrastructure construction has been one of its main targets. Regions along China’s extensive land borders, all of them rich in natural resources but some, like Xinjiang where I have conducted my research since 2011, also volatile and restive, have since been at the receiving end of massive state investment in roads, railways, and airports. Over the past fifteen years, this investment has diametrically changed local and translocal geographies of mobility.
Last year, when I returned to the road that I was unable to take in 1999, I was able to observe the changes with my own eyes. There, where the bus had driven through a road-less steppe and desert in 1999, there was a brand-new tarmac highway. Interestingly, however, though the materiality of the road changed diametrically, when the wind swirled up the sand the tarmac road ‘disappeared’ from view exactly as the dirt track had done seventeen years earlier. Moreover, in summer months the tarmac heats up to 70 degrees Celsius, making it a place to avoid for both truck drivers and the traffic police. In winter, when sandstorms and dust weather set in, the travelling conditions further deteriorate. Tarmac, which unavoidably disintegrates under the influence of the overweight traffic, sand, sun and salt is symptomatic of a larger issue, namely, that of establishing and maintaining the material presence of the state in this vast border landscape. While currently maintained at extremely high financial and ecological costs, the future of the road is, at best, uncertain.
Things have changed so much since 1999, people say. There is a road to every corner of Xinjiang today, people say. Indeed, ‘things’ have changed. What exactly has changed, and for whom, is an ever complex question. While some individuals and communities profit from new infrastructures, these infrastructures also create new inequalities by excluding others from participating in the new world of cement and speed. Hence, representations of roads on maps as continuous, apparently available-to-all and non-valorized lines can be, variously, a claim, a fantasy, a desire, or a trick. In the practice of traveling, ethnicity, gender, class and other social categorizations influence mobility in powerful ways. On the other hand, ‘things’ have perhaps changed less than is often assumed. Roads are still complex bundles of social relations between human and non-human agents like terrain and climate, whose mutual entanglements in world regions like the Sino-Central Asian borderlands remain as challenging to discipline and control as ever.


October 2017


I was coming from an interview with a return migration consultant somewhere in Switzerland. In the entrance hall, a pile of bags and suitcases caught my attention. While I had been conducting the interview, someone had apparently put the luggage there, just under the yellow poster advertising for the so-called assisted voluntary return migration programme. An hour earlier, when I had entered the building, the luggage had not been there yet. 

Whose luggage could that be? I looked around. The hall was empty. I waited for some time. But no one appeared. Are these the belongings of someone who is about to leave Switzerland “voluntarily”, as the official language of the return migration programme describes it euphemistically? This was my first and immediate intuition. 

In the absence of my real camera, I took a grainy, underexposed picture with my smartphone. Then I left the building. 

On the train ride back home, my thoughts kept wandering back to the pile of luggage. I realised that, of course, it was not even certain that the pile of bags and suitcases had anything to do with the return migration office. Maybe those were the belongings of someone who just had an appointment with the social welfare office which is located in the same building. If so, this would mean that my speculations had been going in a completely wrong direction and that, in fact, the luggage had nothing to do with my research on so-called voluntary return.

Despite the lacking context, the picture can figure as a symbol for precarious mobility at the margins of society. The building that accommodates the social welfare office and the return migration office is frequented by those who have not found their place in society, or whose place in society is questioned and systematically denied. They are not welcomed, but rather governed and administered by the state bureaucracy. This luggage does not resemble the shiny suitcases of business travellers or tourists in any way. Definitively, here we are not dealing with someone preparing for a holiday. And the sheer amount of material that is packed in these bags gives the impression that someone has stuffed his or her entire life into these bags—ready for relocation. 

But maybe this interpretation is all too pessimistic. The owner of the belongings might be quite happy with the prospect that his odyssey will soon come to an end. During my research in Tunisia, I encountered several return migrants who were quite happy that they were able to return to their home town. While they felt stuck during their asylum procedure in Switzerland, the so-called voluntary return migration programme opened up a new perspective for them; that their life was going somewhere again. Being able to make plans for one’s own life is a very existential condition of humanity. However, for these young Tunisian migrants, who are wandering around Europe in search for a better future, the European border regime only allows them to imagine their own future under the very specific conditions of a so-called voluntary return. 

Hence, we should not forget that even in this more positive interpretation, it is still the state that governs the conditions of the possibilities of mobility and sets the direction. And it is still the state that has brought forward the conditions that made their lives come to a halt. This kind of governed “voluntary” mobility is the dysfunctional version of a transnational freedom of movement. 

The grainy, underexposed picture of this pile of bags and suitcases does not reveal much of these reflections in itself. It is nothing more than an invitation to think about the conditions of the possibilities of mobility in contemporary society. 

July 2017


The picture I am writing about here has acquired more and more meaning for me over time, because I only belatedly understood what is visible in it, and because I had deceived myself about it for such a long time. It exemplifies, as it were, that an ethnography never ends.

I took this picture because I had been fascinated by the idiosyncratic combination of clothes and decorations, in which the three young women celebrated their graduation from religious school. This was in 1996, after the end of the Ramadan, when the great yearly festivals take place in Sungai Tenang in the central Sumatran highlands. The three young women wore the white prayer scarf as it is common for Muslim women in Indonesia. With it, they wore headrings (agal), a male prerogative in their Arab region of origin. Together with the sunglasses and the lipstick the three girls looked coquettish to me, not quite congruent with the occasion. Did they take their religious graduation more lightly than their age-mates in the background? Or was their outfit an instance of creative gender-bending motivated by the structural contradiction of their Muslim and at the same time matrilinear society?

The explanations of a former secretary of the colonial administration soon threw some light on the enigmatic vestiary syncretism. The old man told me about a period in the 1920s and 1930s when many young men from the highlands had gone on the Hajj to Mekka and upon their return had brought with them Arab clothings. They would wear them for their own weddings but afterwards had no use for them anymore. Arab men use the headrings to fix the kufiya, the chequered headscarf. As Indonesian men wear a fez instead of a headscarf, on festive occasions, the decorative as well as practical headrings were up to grabs for the women, so to speak. Eventually it became a habit for women to wear the agal over their headscarfs during religious festivals. This peculiar appropriation of a customary Arab piece of clothing by the “wrong” gender exemplifies the creative and self-confident way the society of Sungai Tenang for a long time re-interpreted Islam and related cultural imports. Today, merely twenty years later, women don’t decorate themselves with the agal anymore.

But there are still occasions when young women wear sunglasses. Two years ago, during an excursion with a number of students to Sungai Tenang, this part of the puzzle finally unravelled for me as well. In daily life neither men nor women wear sunglasses. It would be deemed arrogant if somebody evaded eye-contact in this way. The only occasions when young women, and more rarely, young men, wear sunglasses, are festivals when they have to present themselves to the whole village – such as graduation ceremonies and weddings. As our excursion took place during the festival season, we got invited to many weddings. At each wedding, a master of ceremony explained the programme and the rules. The youth were reminded to behave properly. And remarkably, all those who might secretly object to the outcome of the wedding arrangements were asked to renounce on sorcery.

People said that it frequently happened that brides sitting on the pedestal besides their grooms were suddenly possessed by a spirit a begrudging shaman had sent. To protect themselves they wear sunglasses. It is believed that the evil spirits recognize their victims by their fearful gaze. The sunglasses deceive the spirits. Indeed, on one evening I witnessed myself how in short sequence a bride and her groom, whom their alarmed kin had put on sunglasses only minutes before, twisted and fainted and were quickly carried out of the village hall. A shaman was called to exorcise the spirits that had possessed them.

Finally, the riddle of the picture I had taken 20 years earlier dissolved. The religious graduation had taken place a few weeks before the yearly group wedding in the village. The three young women apparently were brides, for whom their mothers had already arranged marriage partners. That they wear lipstick is another indication of their status. Only unmarried but eligible young women may wear lipstick in public. At the graduation the young women were presented to the whole village. This was a first occasion for a sorcerer to call on a spirit to possess a young bride who was going to marry a rival of his or her son or nephew. The young women in the background in the picture were no brides, and their male age-mates were not yet eligible. Young women who didn’t go on to a higher school married at 14 at the time, young men at about 20.

Are the three women on the picture coquettish? Maybe on other occasions – but on the picture they tensly anticipate the supernatural challenges of the approaching wedding and the unknown and therefore scary events of their married lives.

Note: Kathrin Oester’s Film „I Love You – Hope for the Year 2000“ tells the story of the hopes and fears of young women and men during the wedding season of 1996 in Sungai Tenang.