Pluto Podcast Episode 1 – ‘Footwork’ with Tom Hall

Our first podcast is with Tom Hall, the author of Footwork: Urban Outreach and Hidden Lives. A street-corner ethnography of the homeless living in Cardiff, drawing on the themes of urban regeneration, lost space and the 24-hour city. It’s an insightful and at times very funny portrait of hidden lives, an ‘erudite book about city life that exudes a deep but irreverent sense of humanity.’ Do have a listen…

Rough Sleeping in the 24hr City by Tom Hall

Tom Hall’s Footwork: Urban Outreach and Hidden Lives is a street-corner ethnography that looks at how urban modernisation, development and politics impact on the hidden lives of people living and working on the streets. From the rough hall-t02150sleeping homeless to street drinkers and sex workers, this book reveals the stories of the vulnerable and isolated – people living in the city that we often choose to ignore.

In these extracts, Hall introduces some of Cardiff’s homeless community: Gerald, Paul, Rose, Jackie, Wayne, Damian, Gemma and Carol, looking at how the politics of the urban landscape metes out injustices, limits the right to a home, impacts health and contrives relationships. 

In directing attention to homeless individuals my aim has been to people this book, early on, with those whose lives and difficulties are at stake throughout, if only just a few of them. I feel they are owed some visibility. But I do not want any brief description of individual character and circumstance to be read as a satisfactory, or even part-way satisfactory, account of the problem. Understanding why some people are homeless is best begun somewhere else. It remains the case that homelessness is something that (only) happens to people, however; and that is worth remembering. I have also, at points, obscured things: I have anonymised some of those I am writing about, protecting identities and changing some details – of appearance, sequence of events, particulars. I have done so to afford some privacy to those whose lives are already uncomfortably public. I hope this does not seem inconsistent. I have tried for balance: some visibility, but not too much. Were this book about homelessness, or, rather, about homeless people, things would be different perhaps. Instead, the homeless are a little off to one side of what I am really about here. Their lived circumstances animate others in various ways, as I have suggested, and it is those others, care and outreach workers moving around the city looking out for people in need, that this book is about if it is about any collection of individuals at all. Accordingly, Charlie is Charlie, and Dennis is Dennis, because I know them well and have shared their work; and they know me. Visibility – who sees who and on what terms, who sees their (own) name in print – has to be managed.

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Gerald sleeps (as I write) against the rear wall of the Glamorgan Building in Cardiff ’s civic centre. He may not be sleeping at all, may not have slept much all night, but he has made a place for himself there and has occupied it dependably for the last few months, wrapped in a sleeping bag with his minimal possessions arrayed around him. He doesn’t move much and doesn’t like to be disturbed; he can spend two or three days (and nights) in this same spot without seeming even to stand up. He must sleep some of the time.

The Glamorgan Building, once the county hall of Glamorgan, houses Cardiff University’s Schools of City and Regional Planning and Social Sciences; it is a large, neoclassical, listed (Grade 1) building. I work there, in an office on the first floor with a view out across the city, towards Cardiff Bay. Directly below my window a walkway runs along the side of the building and around a corner to a car park at the back. Here, squeezed between the tarmac apron and the rear wall of the building, under cover of a first-floor balcony and balustrade, are a couple of concrete benches and some bicycle racks; and this is where Gerald has established himself, where he was lying this morning as I passed him on my way into the building. It is a good spot, sheltered from the rain and mostly quiet.

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Identity in Flux by Elisabeth Schober and Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Published this week ‘Identity Destabilised’, edited by Thomas Hylland Eriksen and Elisabeth Schober, explores the contradictions, tensions and paradoxes of social identities in a fluctuating neoliberal world. Looking at elitism in Afghanistan, locality, footballs fans and nationalism and nostalgia in an Israeli border towns, this anthropological exercise asks how can an identity be stable if its borders are constantly shifting? This article summarises the aims of the book and emphasises the struggle for an identity in the 21st Century.

Since the fall of 2015, when hundreds of thousands of refugees made their way through what was then becoming known as the “Balkan route”, heading to Germany and beyond, the word “identity” has been used in a nearly inflationary manner by forces of the center- to far-right. Hungarian prime minister Victor Orban saw a threat to Europe’s “Christian identity” in those new arrivals – a sentence that was much hailed by similarly minded actors across the continent, and is just one example that points to something rather important: the return of an extremely virulent form of politics around issues to do with identity. This phenomenon, we believe, ties into a larger process that warrants our attention: the perceived and often real destabilisation of local live-worlds amidst accelerated social change, triggered by an “overheated” form of globalisation.

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For a while in the 1990s, the concept of identity seemed to be everywhere. It has subsequently faded away somewhat as a keyword in the social sciences, which is to be regretted, since we live in a time when good and focused research on social identification is acutely needed. The need for the term identity is possibly even more pressing today than in the last century, if the high-speed transformations we have witnessed in a number of locations across the globe over the last few years are any indication at all. In a fast changing world with rapidly increasing connectivity and mobility, with mounting environmental challenges, rapid economic transformations and the rise of often virulent nationalisms, forms of belonging to places, groups or communities are being challenged in new ways that social scientists arguably still need to have a language for.

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A Planet Afflicted by a High Fever

The world is ‘overheated’. Too full and too fast; uneven and unequal. It is the age of the Anthropocene, of humanity’s indelible mark upon the planet. In short, it is globalisation – but not as we know it. Leading anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen is the author of a new book Overheating: An Anthropology of Accelerated Change, which is linked with an international anthropological project, centered at the University of Oslo. In this post, he introduces the themes of the book, and the importance of the project.

‘What do the fateful Brexit referendum, the epidemic spread of Nintendo’s ‘Pokémon Go’ game, theOverheating escalating death of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the fivefold growth in tourism since 1980 have in common? The short answer is that they all express symptoms or outcomes of global accelerated change, or ‘overheating’, as I call it in my new book.

It is as if modernity has shifted to a higher gear since the early 1990s. Modernity has always been about acceleration and change, but in the last quarter-century, acceleration has accelerated. While you were out having a coffee, the number of refugees in the world seemed to have grown by ten per cent by the time you returned. While you were offline on a short holiday, Indonesia overtook Australia as the world’s largest coal exporter. And when you log onto your favourite newspaper, in the hope that you might encounter a few drops of optimism, the first headline you click on is a story about the dramatic decline of biodiversity in the contemporary world (The Guardian, 14 July 2016). Caused by agricultural expansion, climate change and pollution, the loss of biodiversity is an excellent, if frightening, example of ‘overheating’: It is an unintended consequence of the planet having been filled slowly to the brim by human activities and projects. It is not caused by one single factor possible to contain or control, but by the confluence of several mutually reinforcing processes – population growth, land clearing and monocultures, global neoliberalism and fossil fuel use, to mention a few major factors.

Overheating: An Anthropology of Accelerated Change is based on the assumption that the fast changes characterising the present age have important, sometimes dramatic unintended consequences. Each of the five empirical chapters focuses on one key area – energy, cities, mobility, waste, information – and shows how changes may take unexpected directions, which were neither foreseen nor desired at the outset.

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Fredrik Barth: An intellectual biography

As  a new biography of social anthropologist Fredrik Barth is published this month, we ask the author Thomas Hylland Eriksen, himself a renowned anthropologist, to expand on why he chose his subject…

‘Social scientists come in many shapes, some more interesting than others. One of the Fredrik Barthextremes is the wide-ranging scholar who circles the planet in a helicopter with a pair of binoculars, eventually developing a theory about life, the universe and everything. The opposite extreme is the khaki-clad explorer crawling on all fours while peering at the grains of sand on the beach through a magnifying glass. This is the end of the continuum where most anthropologists find themselves. Yet, the grains of sand are not enough. Indeed, a major ambition of anthropology consists in ‘seeing the world in a grain of sand’ (Blake), building social theory from everyday events in ordinary communities and discussing human universals through the life-worlds of a few individuals leading perfectly average lives anywhere in the world.

In this endeavour, Fredrik Barth (b. 1928) is an undisputed master. One of the most influential anthropologists of the latter half of the 20th century, Barth’s career spans six decades and has brought him to more than a dozen field sites. This book tells the story of Barth’s life from his student days in Chicago just after the war to his retirement years in Oslo; and in doing so, it highlights the power of the ethnographic gaze and the critical potential inherent in an anthropological approach to human life. At its best, anthropology can tell us that everything could have been different, that there are many roads to the good life, and that the present social order does not necessarily constitute ‘the best of all possible worlds’ (Leibniz). Anthropology treats all lives in an equitable way, giving no pride of place to the pale and powerful.

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Anthropology and Development

Authors Katy Gardner and David Lewis discuss their new edition of this enduring classic  Anthropology and Development: Challenges for the Twenty First Century.

‘Whatever happened to the Anthropology of Development and its ‘post-modern challenge’? After Anthropology and Deveopmentnearly twenty years since the first edition of our book, we decided that the time was ripe to revisit the issues. What we found was both a huge amount of change and not very much at all. It depended where you looked. Whilst there were new players in ‘Aidland’ – corporations touting ‘social responsibility’ and billionaire philanthropists, for example – and with the emergence of BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and ‘the Next 11’ some notable shifts in Development’s geopolitics, in other ways the issues were resoundingly familiar. The collapse of the Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh during 2013, for example, reminded us that the issues that framed the earlier edition of the book remained horribly pertinent. As we had argued then, anthropological questions of access, control and effects were core to the academic critique of development and contributed to progressive policies which attempted to make it better. Yet as the biggest industrial disaster since Bhopal reminded us, lack of rights, weak and corrupt states, poverty and entrepreneurial criminality combined in a toxic mixture to bring about the deaths and grave injuries of thousands of factory workers in a country that was being hailed in some quarters for its accelerating economic growth. Those that died had no access to safe working conditions or employment rights and the building, which the day before was showing large cracks, was controlled by a member of the criminal underworld associated with land grabs and illegal construction. The Rana Plaza’s horrific collapse materialised the effects of rampant neoliberal development.

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