Despite storm Xavier complicating the journey to Freie Universität in Berlin’s south, anthropologists working in Germany and beyond came together for the biannual conference of the German Anthropological Association (GAA). The organizers decided on the conference title “Belonging: Affective, moral and political practices in an interconnected world”. This admittedly bulky title was conceptually wide enough to accommodate a variety of 47 workshops, five plenary sessions, one panel discussion, and a lunch talk. Moreover, having many members gathered in the capital provided an opportunity to hold the GAA general assembly and make some major decisions on the organization’s future.

The workshops

During the general assembly, one member criticized that not all submitted workshops had found a place in the conference program – not even those organized by the regional and thematic groups within the association. Hansjörg Dilger (Freie Universität Berlin), the reelected director of the association, explained that the conference team had needed to reduce the number of workshops that are taking place simultaneously. Despite this reduction, I was quite devastated to discover that the three workshops that I was most interested in were assigned the same time slot. And thus, I found myself faced with the almost impossible choice in workshops: Medical Anthropology? Science and Technology Studies (STS)? Or multispecies ethnographies?

But these were not the only opportunities to gain new ideas and inspiration on how to approach my own research project from new angles. For instance, the workshop “Variations of temporal belonging: Time, sociality and difference” made me think about how time is done and how different timescapes compete in the hairdressing salon.

Due to my interest in the body and bodily practices, I especially enjoyed the workshop “Bodies, categorizations and rights: On biological forms of political subjectivity”, organized by Sabine Netz, Sarah Lempp (both Freie Universität Berlin), and Kristine Krause (University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands). The speakers engaged with practices that enact the body in different versions and bring about embodied subjectivities that are bound up with political claims. Sabine Netz examined forensic age assessments to evaluate the age of refugees in Germany, which then results in the decision over a person’s deportability. She argued that the individual age of a person is not just located within their body, but depends on the technologies and standards involved in the assessment techniques employed. Similarly, Leonie Dronkert (University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands) showed that care needs are not just a property of the individual body. Instead, they are collaboratively performed in the Dutch process of long-term care assessment.

Additionally, Claudia Liebelt (University of Bayreuth) presented her research about gender norms and urban belonging in Istanbul, Turkey. She illustrated how imaginations about urban femininity are materialized through cosmetically modifying “ethnic features” of the body, particularly female “heavy” breasts and “hooked” noses. In Liebelt’s presentation, I saw some overlaps with my own topic of hairdressing. She explained that cosmetic surgeons and their clients are concerned with “naturalness”, in that cosmetically optimized noses shouldn’t look artificial. Similarly, I observed stylists’ concern with the creation of “natural looks” in the hairdressing salon. For instance, in a three-hours treatment, one stylist intended to create a “natural look” that imitates the different blond shades that hair acquires when the sun has bleached it out during summer vacations.

Plenary sessions, panel discussion, lunch talk: “Anthropology at the cutting edge”

With five plenary session and a panel discussion the conference organizers addressed topics that have been discussed controversially in a broader public. The opening session went by the slightly sensational title “Refuge Europe at its Limit?”. “The refugee crisis”, however, was a salient topic to point out the relevance of anthropology as a discipline that does not easily buy into master narratives – for instance, of the flood of refugees drowning Europe. Instead, Alessandro Monsutti (Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies Geneva, Switzerland), Heath Cabot (University of Pittsburgh, USA), and Žiga Podgornik-Jakil (Freie Universität Berlin) shed light on the perspectives of those whose voices are easily overheard: Afghans seeking a better life in Europe, refugees in and citizens of Greece suffering from austerity policies, and refugees accommodated in shelters in Berlin.

With public debates more geographically concentrated on the conference venue of Berlin, the panel discussion about the Humboldt Forum was not less controversial. For the discussion, the conference participants migrated from the main building of Freie Universität to the heart of the debates, the close-by Ethnological Museum. In the basement of the museum, the panelists discussed the implications of transferring its collection to the Humboldt Forum in the center of Berlin. With exhibition concepts being overthrown only two years before the opening of the Humboldt Forum, old debates about ethnologists’ involvement in the colonial project – not only by stealing objects from African societies and bringing them to Europe, but also by supporting colonial rule with the contribution of ethnographic knowledge – were discussed with new vigor.

V. König: zwei Jahre vor Eröffnung des #HumboldtForums werden neue Konzepte aufgezwungen. Besser: alles auf null bringen #DGV2017

— DGV (@DGV_Ethnologie) 6. Oktober 2017

Albert Gouaffo (Université de Dschang, Cameroun) emphasized the importance of provenance research as well as the need to acknowledge a shared history by entering into dialogue with the societies from which the objects were taken. Carola Lentz (Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz) took up this point, but argued that an engagement with anthropology’s colonial past has been a central concern of anthropologists for a long time and insisted that the discipline should not be made “the only scapegoat of Europe’s imperial history”. Instead, she pleaded for abandoning the idea of the Humboldt Forum as a “uniform and integrated whole” and rather understanding it as an ongoing performance. In the heated debate, one suggestion from the audience caused some raised eyebrows: Why not entering into dialogue with postcolonial societies by compensating them with folkloric objects from Europe? Fortunately, this thought was not pursued any further.

Even though the panel discussion had to end without a definite answer to its title “Quo vadis Berlin-Mitte?”, the panelists found common ground in that anthropological perspectives should be taken into consideration more thoroughly. Thereby, they agreed with Hansjörg Dilger, who demanded a “structural inclusion of anthropological perspectives” in the management and planning of the Humboldt Forum’s ethnological exhibitions. During the plenary session “Engaging the Post/Colonial Archive”, one could get a glimpse into how such a “structural inclusion” of anthropologists into the work with ethnographic objects in archives and scientific collections – as well as the challenges they face – can look like in practice. For this purpose, the organizers Katharina Schramm (Freie Universität Berlin) and Larissa Förster (Humboldt University of Berlin) invited among others Tahani Nadim and Bambi Ceuppens to talk about their respective work at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin and the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium.

Besides highly topical discussions, the plenary sessions also addressed more “classical” anthropological topics, situating them in current developments of migration, urbanization, and medialization. The plenary session “Moral Cities” discussed how religion and urban space mutually shape each other. Omar Kasmani and Dominik Mattes (both Freie Universität Berlin) presented their research on how diasporic religious communities – a Turkish Sufi prayer circle and a West-African neo-Pentecostal congregation – engage with the cityscape of Berlin through “affective place-making”. Additionally, the plenary session “Families on the Move” brought the field of kinship studies into the contemporary context in which many families are geographically dispersed as a result of forced or voluntary migration. The presenters explored how intimacy and sensing is done at distance with the help of communication technologies, but also how attachment is transformed when whole families migrate to new places.

During the lunch talk and also in the plenary session “Doing Anthropology Ethically” the increased importance of data management in ethnographic research was addressed. With open source initiatives and collaborative research projects being on the rise, the classical image of the lonely ethnographer visiting her far-off field site has been changing for quite a while. We’re studying up, conducting research in cities – as shown by the newly founded interest group “urban anthropology” within the GAA – and we’re working in teams. Therefore, the question if and in which form we should make our gathered data accessible to others gets more and more important. This also comes with a question Erdmute Alber (University of Bayreuth) put succinctly: Can highly subjective data like filed diary entries be of use for anyone else except the ethnographer herself, and if so, in what way? For me, this blog is one way to engage with this question – by trying out new forms of sharing with both my interlocutors and other scholars interested in the field the problems and topics I am dealing with during and after my fieldwork.

The general assembly: “What’s in a name?”

Before the discussion about the Humboldt Forum which addressed anthropology’s colonial involvement, the association got rid of another heirloom reminiscent of “old times” – its name. Up until the general assembly of 2017, the association was called German Association for “Völkerkunde”, abbreviated DGV. This discipline designation translates roughly as “people’s science” and uses the term “Volk” which – especially within a climate of right-wing populist parties gaining strength in Europe – is associated with nationalist ideologies about separate and discreet peoples.

#Umbenennung geschafft! 2/3 Mehrheit für DGSKA: Wir sind jetzt “Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sozial- und Kulturanthropologie” #DGV2017

— DGV (@DGV_Ethnologie) 6. Oktober 2017

As I understand it, some German anthros have felt an increasing public acceptance of Ethnologie, and don’t want squander this (?). #dgv2017

— Allegra Lab (@allegra_lab) 6. Oktober 2017

However, renaming the association was harder than it might seem. First, quite shocking to me, some members clung to this name. I can only assume what their reasons were: a nostalgic sentiment for the association’s name or an outdated understanding of our discipline – namely the study of homogenous peoples bound to a specific territory. Second, assembling a qualified majority of those in favor of a name change and making them agree on a new name was another task. Should the association bear the name “ethnology”, because it is more easily communicable to a broader public or should the name represent what we as anthropologists are actually doing – engaging with the various ways in which humans live together? Thanks to many students and young scholars joining the association beforehand, the majority voted for the latter. Thus, the old “Völkerkunde” in the association’s name was replaced by “Social and Cultural Anthropology”. We’re now DGSKA.


Cover picture: Lunchtalk “Forschungsdatenmanagement in der Ethnologie”, Max Schnepf, 05.10.2017

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