Category Archives: Volume 3

A Critique of the ‘Paleo Diet’: broader implications of a socio-cultural food practice

by Ashley Reeves
Undergraduate Student | University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada


Relatively little has been written about the social, economic and political dynamics and relationships that are engendered through Paleo culture. Examining the tensions within and between the ‘Paleo Diet’ principles and practices reveals the application of a technical solution to a structural problem: power dynamics created at an individual and group level by the Paleo culture reveals an emergent food classism rooted in socio-economic and racialized inequalities. Participation in and adherence to the Paleo lifestyle (or the inability to do so) creates particular types of social subjects and subjectivities based on the the implicit moralization of food and consumption practices. While the Paleo Diet reflects millenarian apprehensions about the state of the contemporary world and concerns with global food quality and food insecurity, it is dependent on and exacerbates the socio-economic dynamics and marginalizing practices of a global food regime that it seeks to critique and abandon.

Key words: Paleo Diet, food inequity, biopolitics, food morality, marginalized consumption

Publication Information
Volume 3, Issue 1 (2017)

In 2002, The Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain was published, becoming a bestseller and the basis of a popular North American health and fitness movement. Based on gastroenterology research first conducted by Walter Voegtlin in the 1970s and developed further by the pivotal work of Stanley Boyd Eaton and Melvin Konner in the 1980s, the Paleo Diet (or ‘Caveman’ diet) promotes an idealized diet based on the nutritional superiority of anatomically modern humans during the Palaeolithic era.[1] Since the popularization of the Paleo Diet, there have been numerous blogs, cookbooks, celebrity advocates as well as scholarly articles written, debating the merits and benefits of this nutritional program and its ability to combat the diseases of civilization.[2] However, relatively little has been written about the social, economic and political dynamics and relationships that are engendered through Paleo culture. Examining the tensions within and between the ‘Paleo Diet’ principles and practices reveals the application of a technical solution to a structural problem; power dynamics created at an individual and group level by the Paleo culture reveals an emergent food classism rooted in socio-economic and racialized inequalities. Participation in and adherence to the Paleo lifestyle (or the inability to do so) creates particular types of social subjects and subjectivities based on the implicit moralization of food and consumption practices. While the Paleo Diet reflects millenarian apprehensions about the state of the contemporary world and concerns with global food quality and food insecurity, it is dependent on and exacerbates the socio-economic dynamics and marginalizing practices of a global food regime that it seeks to critique and abandon.

The premise of the ‘Paleo Diet’ culture is that the rise of human obesity, disease and malnutrition are the results of the agricultural revolution and Western, industrialized consumptive patterns (Eaton and Konner 1985). The Paleo Diet promotes lean meat and animal product consumption (such as grass-fed meats, eggs, fish and seafood), fresh non-starchy vegetables and fruit (including nuts and seeds), as well as “healthful oils” (olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado, coconut); while discouraging cultivated grains such as wheat, rice and corn, legumes, dairy products, refined sugar, potatoes, vegetable oils, salt, and other industrialized processed foods (Cordain 2015). According to the evolutionary discordance hypothesis, “the profound environmental changes (e.g., [sic] in diet and other lifestyle conditions) that began with the introduction of agriculture and animal husbandry 10 000 y ago occurred too recently on an evolutionary time scale for the human genome to adapt” (Cordain et al. 2005:341). Experts cite this genetic adaptive lag coupled with the rapid industrialization in the last century as being responsible for the “so-called diseases of civilization” and they call for all people to return to a Palaeolithic, or pre-agricultural diet in order to improve their health and well-being (Cordain et al. 2005:341). Western consumption and cultural food practices, with a heavy emphasis on processed, high sodium, high fat foods, are out of sync with the biological realities of anatomically modern humans.

Since the 1990s, public discourse on the assumed correlation between physical health, well-being (whether physiological, mental, or emotional) and food has grown and is most salient in debates surrounding obesity (Greenhalgh 2012). Framed as an ‘epidemic’, the North American obsession with being fat has tied the traditional idea of being overweight as an implicit moral failure, to the medicalized paradigm of “the now-routine definition of excess weight as a disease” (Greenhalgh 2012:471). Within this ideology, the complex socio-economic issue of obesity is reduced to a biopolitical problem deserving of a technical solution. Fatness is articulated by Paleo culture as a disease that is cured by changing the diet; it is seen as being a controllable on an individual level, and the inability to curb fatness is an implicit moral failure. The disambiguation between morality, health and biopolitics has led to “moral pronouncements about consumption [that] are inevitable, but…are not arbitrary; on the contrary, they are highly patterned, and they have a social and historical context” (Wilks 2001:250; Greenhalgh 2012). The tenets of the ‘Paleo Diet’ are substantiated by the turn to a biopolitical rationalization of human existence, which fails to address broader structural issues of economic inequality and food insecurity, and erases the link between obesity and the decline in access to nutritious, quality food for marginalized populations (Greenhalgh 2012; Delaney and McCarthy 2014).

The moralizing dichotomy of healthy/good versus unhealthy/bad embedded in the ethos of the Paleo lifestyle can be seen as reductive and problematic. The Paleo ideology is a contemporary cultural construct that utilizes an adaptationist imaginary to reify the distant past. What Paleo culture attempts to capture is “the American utopia vision [which] posits a time of self-sufficient people who were satisfied with what they had” (Wilk 2001:248). Bolstered by the authority of Western science, Paleo culture creates a “consumption space” that uses the biopolitical paradigm of optimization to “fabricate an aura of authenticity” (Zukin 2008:736). Moreover, in forging links between health, morality and consumptive practices, Paleo culture is able to “affect the self-definition of others…motivating their consumption [and]…affect[ing] who and what they think they are” (Mintz 2009:214). The normative, Western emphasis on self-sufficiency and independence discourages inclusion of those who rely on and are embedded in extended support networks to access food and other resources. By objectifying the individual to create Paleo subjects, Paleo culture objectifies the relation between the body and self by “the sheer fact of being alive in natural history or biology,” which it accomplishes through the medicalization of the body (Foucault 1982:777). Through the prescription of “dividing practices”, food is transformed into a type of moralizing and divisive power that can be exercised over the individual (Foucault 1982:777-8). Certain foods (and therefore people) that are deemed ‘good’, ‘healthy’, or ‘natural’ should be consumed while others that are considered ‘bad’, ‘unhealthy’, or ‘processed’ are best avoided.

Paleo culture also inadvertently bolsters a particular set of cultural capital that stems from the moralized, health paradigm that produces an emergent food classism along ethno-racial lines (Lamont and Fournier 1992). Like many alternative food discourses, “privileged perspectives tend to be normalized…despite the structural inequalities making it difficult for marginalized groups to eat with maximum efficiency, healthfulness, deliciousness and distinction” (Johnston et al. 2011:296). The Paleo Diet reduces food consumption to a nutritional cost/benefit dichotomy that obfuscates social, economic and historical constraints that shape contemporary eating practices (Johnston 2011).[3] Through the medicalization of nutrition and the power of cultural capital, Paleo culture produces divisive practices that are effectively colourblind to the ubiquitousness of white privilege, assuming a universalist appeal which does not account for the fact that food quality and security are largely mediated by economic viability, knowledge and resource acquisition determined by ethno-racial identity (Guthman 2008). The Paleo culture’s focus on gourmet ingredients, such as coconut oil, and time-consuming preparation effectively “distribute[s] healthy diets to affluent [white] consumers, and highly processed high calorie foods for poorer [brown and black] populations” (McMichael 2009:159). Low income and racialized others are alienated from developing or accruing a form of cultural capital that as an alternative practice, theoretically aims to shift how all people eat (Slocum 2006). While Paleo culture advocates authentic, ‘from the ground’ food consumption, in reality it ignores the socio-economic inequalities that shape the participant demographic.

Paleo culture garners its legitimacy not only from health discourses and an appeal to a romanticized past, but also from the growing popularity of alternative food practices. Despite its populist rhetoric, Paleo does not appear to advocate explicitly for alternative food movements, but benefits from “public discourse [that] has raised questions about our ability to continue to transport food, or its components, across the world” (McMichael 2009:139). With its temporally remote historical narrative, Paleo culture resists being situated within its contemporary global, geopolitical and economic context. Unlike other alternate food movements that emphasize local production or subsistence agriculture, the Paleo Diet’s consumptive mandates rely on the current global food system and agricultural practices that are responsible for the growth and proliferation of processed foods. “[P]aleo advocates don’t just want us to cut down on processed carbs and grains, they’re dedicated to a selective denial of modernity,” including a selective denial of modern international trade and agricultural relationships that allow for the mass production of vegetables, fruit and meat, as well as the ability to transport them around the world at the expense of the environment, food quality and food security (Wilson 2015). Corporations such as Whole Foods appeal to affluent consumers of fresh and gourmet products, appropriating the momentum of alternative food movements and principles to reproduce relations of inequality locally by catering to those who can afford to pay as opposed to advocating for equitable access to quality food, as well as globally by instituting principles of mass agricultural production through “green capitalism” (Friedmann 2005:229). This is accomplished primarily through global regulatory institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO) and trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which perpetuate relationships of economic dependence and trade inequality between the global north and global south (McMichael 2009; Freedman 2005). By focusing on a narrow discourse of food that concerns itself primarily with the technical aspects of nutrition, Paleo culture fetishizes foods as ahistorical commodities, erases the geopolitical relationships and dynamics between producers and consumers, and implicitly corroborates institutionalized agro-politics that enact global policy which detrimentally affects the agency of nations, communities and people. An example of what Foucault (1982) terms an ‘immediate struggle’, Paleo culture critiques individual consumption that prioritizes fast and convenient food over nutrition and quality, but fails to recognize that one of the “chief enemies” of health and well-being is rampant global food inequity caused by the domination of neoliberal capitalist agricultural production that enables its existence (p. 780). From this analytical perspective, the ‘Paleo Diet’ is not “a postmodern retreat into locality, anti-urbanism and neo-populist nostalgia” but rather a pattern of consumption that is hinged on capitalist exchange-value relations and embedded in neoliberal agricultural practices (Araghi 2003:51; McMichael 2009:155). Paleo culture’s fear of the diseases of civilization are starkly juxtaposed by emerging diseases of affluence which capitalize on the moralization of food and the body in its principles, but is morally bankrupt in its practices.

A broader millenarian concern about the state of a world dominated by hunger, war and environmental destruction; the use of monocultures and GMO’s, fertilizers and pesticides; outbreaks of food-borne illness; and rising obesity rates have generated global uncertainties. The Paleo Diet and its populist, Western cultural following interpolates obesity and the problems of contemporary, global food systems as a technical, nutritional issue instead of a structural, socio-economic problem. Drawing authority from adaptationist theory and universalizing narratives of a distant, arbitrary and reified point in human history, Paleo culture is revealed as a performative and divisive practice. Articulated within the biopolitical paradigm, it isolates and reduces diseases of civilization to an ontological incompatibility between anatomically modern humans and the increasingly processed and nutritionally devalued foods following the agricultural revolution. Paleo culture divides and creates biopolitical subjects who are imbued with the moralized (or demonized) characteristics of the food they consume, reinterpreted through narratives of health and disease, and rooted in class and racialized identities that determine who is (or is not) able to acquire the knowledge, resources and cultural capital required to participate. At the same time, public discourse has given birth to alternative food movements which call into question global food quality, safety and agricultural practices. The fresh fruit, vegetables and meat that the ‘Paleo Diet’ requires ignores the exploitation of the environment, communities and nations. It objectifies and transforms relationships between producers and consumers into commodities of foodstuffs that are divorced from their own history and repackaged in the romanticized caricature of the Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer. Despite its universal rhetoric, Paleo culture engenders forms of neoliberal food classism that appeal to affluent groups, who often possess privileged and nuanced cultural capital, while recreating a marginalized, racialized divide that characterizes consumption practices as symbolic distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ eaters. The point of mapping these trajectories has not been to denounce or endorse the Paleo Diet as a nutritional blueprint. The scientific merits of Palaeolithic nutrition have been debated at length and are beyond the scope of this paper. However, through this essay I have attempted to highlight that some of the socio-economic and political ‘work’ and relationships that Paleo culture engenders is important, far-reaching and worthy of closer attention. By unpacking the social, economic and political relationships embedded in the Paleo Diet, masked tensions are highlighted between its ideological principles and the consequences that result from the complicit actions of its practices.

Works Cited

Araghi, Farshad. 2003. “Food Regimes and the Production of Value: Some Methodological Issues.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 30(2):41–70.

Cordain, Loren. 2015.“What to Eat on the Paleo Diet.” The Paleo Diet, LLC.

—–. 2002. The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Food You Were Designed to Eat. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons.

Cordain, Loren, S. Boyd EatonAnthony SebastianNeil MannStaffan LindebergBruce A. WatkinsJames H O’Keefe, and Janette Brand-Miller. 2005.“Origins and Evolution of the Western Diet: Health Implications for the 21st Century.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 81(2):341-354.

Delaney, Mary, and Mary B. McCarthy. 2014.“Saints, Sinners and Non-Believers: The Moral Space of Food. A Qualitative Exploration of Beliefs and Perspectives on Healthy Eating of Irish Adults Aged 50-70.” Appetite 73:105–113.

Eaton, S. Boyd, and Melvin Konner. 1985.“Paleolithic Nutrition: A Consideration of Its Nature and Current Implications.” The New England Journal of Medicine 312(5):283–289.

Foucault, Michel. 1982.“The Subject and Power.” Critical Inquiry 8(4):777-795.

Friedmann, Harriet. 2005.“From Colonialism to Green Capitalism: Social Movements and Emergence of Food Regimes.” New Directions in the Sociology of Global Development 11:227–264.

Greenhalgh, Susan. 2012.“Weighty Subjects: The Biopolitics of the U.S. War on Fat.” American Ethnologist 39(3):471–487.

Guthman, Julie. 2008.“‘If They Only Knew’: Colour Blindness and Universalism in California Alternative Food Institutions.” The Professional Geographer 60(3):387–397.

Johnston, J., M. Szabo, and A. Rodney. 2011.“Good Food, Good People: Understanding the Cultural Repertoire of Ethical Eating.” Journal of Consumer Culture 11(3):293–318.

McMichael, Philip. 2009.“A Food Regime Genealogy.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 36(1):139–169.

Mintz, Sidney. 2009.“Notes toward a Cultural Construction of Modern Foods.” Social Anthropology 17(2):209–216.

Slocum, Rachel. 2007.“Whiteness, Space and Alternative Food Practice.” Geoforum 38(3):520–533.

Wilk, Richard. 2001.“Consuming Morality.” Journal of Consumer Culture 1(2):245–260.

Voegtlin, Walter. 1975. The Stone Age Diet : Based on in-Depth Studies of Human Ecology and the Diet of Man. New York: Vantage Press.

Zukin, Sharon. 2008.“Consuming Authenticity.” Cultural Studies 22(5):724–748.

End Notes

[1]. Eaton, S. Boyd, and Melvin Konner (1985) Paleolithic Nutrition: A Consideration of Its Nature and Current Implications. The New England Journal of Medicine, 312(5): 283–289 and Voegtlin, Walter (1975) The Stone Age Diet : Based on in-Depth Studies of Human Ecology and the Diet of Man. New York: Vantage Press.

[2]. Any Google query for “Paleo Diet” will return several hundred hits for blogs, cookbooks and various sites detailing the benefits and drawbacks of the food practice. For a small sampling of academic articles, see: Cachel, S. (1997), “Dietary Shifts and the European Upper Palaeolithic Transition,” Current Anthropology 38(4):579–603; Cordain, Loren, et al. (2005), “Origins and Evolution of the Western Diet: Health Implications for the 21st Century,” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 81(341-354); Eaton, S. Boyd (2006), “The Ancestral Human Diet: What Was It and Should It Be a Paradigm for Contemporary Nutrition?”, The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 65(1):1–6; Garn, S. M. and W. R. Leonard (1989), “What Did Our Ancestors Eat?”, Nutrition Reviews 47(11):337–345; Kuipers, Remko S., Josephine C. A. Joordens, and Frits A. J. Muskiet (2012), “A Multidisciplinary Reconstruction of Palaeolithic Nutrition That Holds Promise for the Prevention and Treatment of Diseases of Civilisation,” Nutrition Research Reviews 25:96–129; Laland, Kevin N. and Gillian R. Brown (2006), “Niche Construction, Human Behavior, and the Adaptive-Lag Hypothesis,” Evolutionary Anthropology 15(3):95–104; Ströhle, Alexander and Andreas Hahn (2011), “Diets of Modern Hunter-Gatherers Vary Substantially in Their Carbohydrate Content Depending on Ecoenvironments: Results from an Ethnographic Analysis,” Nutrition Research 31(6) Elsevier Inc.: 429–435; Turner, Bethany L. and Amanda L. Thompson (2013), “Beyond the Paleolithic Prescription: Incorporating Diversity and Flexibility in the Study of Human Diet Evolution,” Nutrition Reviews 71(8):501–510.

[3]. This is a real issue that is not readily discussed in academic circles which overwhelmingly debate the nutritional pros/cons of the Paleo diet and signalling theory where the expense of participating in fad health plans may have some evolutionary benefit of signalling access to resources for displaying health genes (for example see: Bliege Bird, Rebecca. and Eric Alden Smith (2005), “Signalling Theory, Strategic Interaction and Symbolic Capital,” Current Anthropology 46:221-248; Bliege Bird, Rebecca, Eric Alden Smith, and Douglas W. Bird (2001), “The Hunting Handicap: Costly Signalling in Human Foraging Societies,” Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 50:9–19; Smith, Eric Alden, Rebecca Bliege Bird, and Douglas W. Bird (2003), “The Benefits of Costly Signalling: Meriam Turtle Hunters,” Behavioral Ecology 14(1):116–126). However, despite Paleo proponents arguments that it is perfect for everyone, there seems to be lack of recognition that a primarily meat and fresh vegetable diet is expensive and time consuming and therefore not readily accessible to many.


Ethnographic Memories: the politics of fieldwork

by Maxime Polleri
PhD Candidate | York University, Toronto, Canada


This article explores the similarities between a memoir and an ethnographic work. A memoir stands as an historical account written from personal knowledge. It is a form of writing that should resonate deeply within the heart of the anthropologist, whose very own specificity is to be, first and foremost, an ethnographer. That is, anthropologists are individuals full of (hi)stories, contingence, and subjectivity, who nevertheless struggle to bring “objective” accounts of what had happened under their eyes during fieldwork. I use this short comparative act as a jumping board to examine the politics of knowledge in the history of anthropological inquiry since the Enlightenment. More precisely, this comparison represents an opportunity to look at what is silently invested in the practices of ethnographical writing. In a brief discussion, I highlight the political implications that surround issues of knowledge production, expert voices, and translation amidst the discourse and narrative of anthropologists.

Key words: memoirs, memories, ethnography, politics of knowledge, expertise, fieldwork

Publication Information
Volume 3, Issue 1 (2017)


The whiteness of her face seemed to be a remnant of a forgotten lore. I was staring at the paperback version of Memoirs of a Geisha (1997). Its book cover portrayed a young and somewhat nubile geisha, a traditional female entertainer that had become a well-known icon of Japanese culture. For an unknown reason, the book had been misplaced in the Japanese studies section of my former university’s library. Going through its pages, I could not help but ponder as to why the book had been confused with scholarly works. Could “real” knowledge be gain from a memoir? After all, the book has been critically praised for its authenticity and portrayal of the Gion district, an area famous for its geisha. The more I contemplated this question, the more I was struck by the numerous ironies that this book contains. Memoirs of a Geisha, is actually a fictionalized account of the life of a real geisha, Mineko Iwasaki. Yet, an American man who “embodies the life and voice of a Japanese woman” wrote the book (Allison 2001:395). While the memories of another had been “borrowed,” the memoir is nonetheless perceived as an historically accurate depiction of the world of geisha (see Allison 2001: 382). It had perhaps been misplaced for this very own reason. The almost ethnographic writing of the author, Arthur Golden, seems to have granted Memoirs of a Geisha “higher truth value and therefore authority,” where “fantasy collapses into ‘knowledge’” (Allison 2001:385).

After this small library mischief, the boundaries that define and separate a memoir from an ethnographic work appeared much more porous to my person. I began to wonder at what scope these two genres of literature overlap and weave together, simultaneously blurring the edge among facts, fictions, and storytelling. To what extent do memoirs concur with anthropological writing and what insights can be gained in doing such comparison? In this article, I therefore explore the similarities between a memoir and an ethnographic work. More precisely, I use this short comparative act as a jumping board to examine the politics of knowledge in the history of anthropological inquiry since the Enlightenment period. I later focus on three ethnographic cases that have successfully highlighted the silently invested political practices of ethnographic writing. In an ensuing discussion, I explore more thoroughly the political implications that surround issues of knowledge production, expert voices, and translation amidst the discourse of anthropologists.

In a nutshell, the politics of knowledge refers to the inseparability of knowledge and political activities (Rubio and Baert 2012). However, by the ‘politics of knowledge,’ I do not wish to emphasize how governmental structures, such as the judiciary institutions or the heads of the state, influence issues of knowledge-making and vice-versa. As Marilyn Strathern argues, “the notions of ‘the political’ and ‘political personhood’ are cultural obsessions of our own, which we should be wary, in their specificities, of projecting on to others.” (c.f. Rapport and Overing 2007:167). From this viewpoint, politics cannot be merely understood through discrete and fixed entities (Rubio and Baert 2012: 8). Rather than focusing on “politics” as a set of pre-given institutions and unified structures, my account embraces a much more porous conception of the word political. In such, I focus on the manifold processes of negotiation, translation, as well as the distribution of power affecting the relationship of humans in the production of an ethnographic paradigm. This approach enables me to see all knowledge projects as political, highlighting the fact that “researchers are never free from the values and interests of particular social locations.” (Kirksey 2009:157). Rubio and Baert (2012:2) have argued that knowledge is constitutive of the world in which we live in and therefore invariably political. It is the world of anthropologist and their specific politics upon knowledge that constitutes the subject of my interest.

On Porous Grounds

Thinking about memoirs and ethnographies, I now turn my gaze away from the Orient, toward the emerald green forests of Brazil, where a famous anthropologist first conducted his fieldwork. In his book Tristes Tropiques, I have always wondered why French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss started like this: “I hate travelling and explorers” (1973:17). Tristes Tropiques is a unique piece among Lévi-Strauss’ scholarship; it mixes travel memories, ethnographic works, and philosophical ponderings. First and foremost, it stands as an incredible account of his life and work as an ethnologist, but also as a human being. Lévi-Strauss’ voice, which I often find so effaced, distant, and apolitical, is amidst the yellowish pages of my copy of Tristes Tropiques limpid and clearly present. One can almost hear his distinctive pitch, typical of French intellectuals.

On one page the reader stumbles upon the author’s recollection of his youth in Brazil, on the next we find a detailed study of Nambikwara’s Amerindian populations. Tristes Tropiques is a strange book, an odd piece of ethnography, which oscillates between personal accounts and ethnographic details, where both of those pieces are, before and after all, memories. It is along these blurred edges or uncertain boundaries that we can find one of his most poignant works. Needless to say this book has always intrigued me, perhaps because I find it so hard to categorize amidst a given body of theoretical frameworks, such as French structuralism, a label that has often stuck with his later works. Tristes Tropiques is neither an ethnography per se, or a travel story lost in the faux-semblant that is exoticism, the last bastion of occidental men.[1] By its form, poetics, and texture it is closer to the memoir, because that is what constitutes most of the book: a (re)collection of memories, the memoir of an ethnographer who hated travelling and explorers.

In reading Tristes Tropiques one cannot help but think that ethnographic works and memoirs are perhaps not so distant forms of writing. While both genres are based on the work of retrospection and remembrance, some memories matter more than others. Some memories are deemed important enough to lay on paper, while others are discarded at the convenience of the writer, as are the people who are part of them. In the next parts, I explore in more details the relationship between memoirs and ethnographic works.

Memoirs and Ethnographies

A memoir stands as an historical account written from personal knowledge (see Conrad 1986; Gamble 1994). It is a form of writing that should resonate deeply within the heart of the anthropologist, whose very own specificity is primarily as an ethnographer. That is, an anthropologist is an individual full of (hi)stories, contingence, and subjectivity, who nevertheless struggles to bring an ‘objective’ account of what had happened under his or her eyes. More precisely, I use this comparison as an opportunity to look at what is silently invested in the practices of ethnographic writing. I wish to address more thoroughly the political role and consequences of ethnographic discourses and narratives. I approach the notion of the political, because I think that every memoir has an embedded political framework. Obviously, political memoirs could come to mind, but if one also embraces a more informal definition of the word “politics”—as highlighted before—then it is not hard to consider memoirs through a political lens. The memories that matter or not in a memoir; the ones that are deemed relevant are always negotiated. Therefore, one should think of memoirs as specific visions proposed to the readers. They are also the works of individuals who are important enough to be published and to subsequently be heard by an audience. They are the memories of individuals who have the authority to tell their story and, more importantly, to legitimize it. As Lisa Yoneyama (1995: 502) argues: “To possess and demonstrate one’s own memories is therefore inextricably tied to power and autonomy.” The process that underlies ethnographic writing is perhaps not so different.

Often preconceived notions of memoirs link them with works that are thought to be factual, true, and bias-free; for example, Diebel (2002) shows how political memoirs are even regarded as valuable resources in the teaching of diplomatic history, foreign policy, and international relations. Yet, a memoir remains a personal account, a story that is told by a single individual. In a sense, it can be considered as a subjective version of what someone consider objective. One could even go farther as to compare it to a form of storytelling. After all, that is what good memoirs primarily do—they catch the reader up in their emotional narratives (and not merely in the “facts” that constitute them) until the very last page of the book. As opposed to biographies, which often target the whole panorama of a human life, memoirs generally discuss the turning points in the lifetime of an individual, the touchstone matters of what constitutes an “interesting” life (see Conrad 1986: 149). Sometimes, whole sequences and events are skipped, considered irrelevant, while other memories are embellished and turned into an enjoyable, moving, and potentially inspiring story. As Stoller has mentioned, a memoir does “make readers feel like they are getting a ‘real’ story presented in accessible prose” (2007:182).

Yet, when one browses the counters of a bookstore where can memoirs be found? In the literature and fiction department? Try again. . . . In the romance category? Keep looking. . . . Perhaps in the mystery and thriller section? Another dead-end. Now, try your luck in the non-fiction corner and chances are that you will find something. While memoirs in their form, content, and texture obviously blur the edge between facts and stories, they are rarely sold under the label of fiction. One does not need to search long to see the basic dichotomy that emerges in the form of the memoir: to the bare core, I would argue that they straddle objectivity and subjectivity.

Anthropology since its disciplinary inception emerged from a similar dichotomous cradle, causing many to understand the nature of anthropological work in specific ways. The paradox of objectivity and subjectivity that is found within the form of the memoir can easily be transposed to the practices of ethnographic writing, providing a chance to explore the consequences of such a schism. Indeed, feelings, beliefs, political affiliations, and any other remnants of an ethnographer’s subjectivity have always been a part of anthropological inquiries—whether explicitly acknowledged or not. Yet, although not far from a memoirist, the ethnographer has never been defined as a writer of fiction. Individual assertions, based on the fieldwork memories that one deemed relevant, have neither been regarded as anecdotes, tales, or different perspectives. They were rather ethnographic facts, in the same ways that a memoir’s events are considered historical events.[2] Far from being a storyteller that conveys his or her viewpoint, the ethnographer was not understood to be a writer of fiction, but a writer of science. Like the memoirist, who is the storyteller and the object of the story, anthropology was the science (logos) where Man (anthropos) is both the producer of knowledge and the object of it. However, this position expresses a particular dilemma, similar to the one that is found among many memoirs, where the writer’s subjectivity ends up making much of the objective framework that surrounds this genre. Event more recent incarnations of anthropology exhibit a similar double-bind, where the ethnographer is “a creature that can know the world of which it is existentially a part only by taking leave of it” (Ingold 2013: 745). Initially to surpass such a problem and to become a respectable science, anthropology had to embrace a specific position, where scholars had to stand high and strong against assumptions, interpretations, and beliefs (see Latour 2003). A way to do so was to mimic the Enlightenment naturalists and their “pure” science (Descola 2001, 2011). Such a dualistic framework (social science against a natural one) culminated with the dichotomization of anthropology itself. As French anthropologist Philippe Descola argues, “a first split took place at the end of the nineteenth century […] to physical anthropology came the establishment of a unity beyond variations, while social anthropology was to expose variations on the background of an unlikely unity” (my translation 2011: 9-10). This rose to a crescendo with the nature-culture nexus, upon which an enormous body of work and knowledge has emerged. In this regard, and to go back to Lévi-Strauss, it is worth considering Alice Lamy’s (2008) insightful critique of the Elementary Structures of Kinship, written six years before Tristes Tropiques. As she argues:

The text of Lévi-Strauss fits in rupture and continuity with classical theories [such as Rousseau and Hobbes’ “state of nature”]. First of all, the argument of the author is devoid of any political purpose and is a matter of pure anthropological perspective. This perspective leads Lévi-Strauss to make a conceptual shift in his work: one passes from the distinction state of nature/state of society to the distinction state of nature/state of culture. (My translation, Lamy 2008:33-34)

Here, one should not crucify Lévi-Strauss as the father of all dualism in anthropology. Structuralism was never a dogma, but only a method that resorted to binary opposition, useful in some cases, but not in all. Furthermore, the distinction between nature and culture had no “acceptable historical significance” for Lévi-Strauss; it was only a “tool to think of Man as both a biological being and a social individual” (my translation Lamy 2008:34). The only point that I wish to put forward is that politics was not, for Lévi-Strauss, an issue of major importance in the production of ethnographic work, even if his works have ironically triggered in me an interest in the political implications that surround ethnographic writings. As Alice Lamy argued, “His ambition has always been to approach something like the universal laws of the human mind” (my translation 2008:30). It is not the shift per se toward another dichotomy that is interesting for this article, but rather the dismissal of political purpose in the production of an anthropological literature and writing form. It is sometimes on similar “apolitical” grounds that particular canonical forms of ethnography have been cemented and it is the repercussions of such “objective” frames of mind that I wish to highlight. In the next part, I explore the consequences of those apolitical grounds, by focusing on three case studies.

Glaciers, Beans, and Monkeys

In this section, I target three ethnographic cases that have successfully highlighted the silently invested political practices of ethnographic writing. I begin with the work of anthropologist Julie Cruikshank (2006), who has been interested in the link between local knowledge and colonial encounters, in an effort to address more thoroughly the political role and consequences of anthropological discourses. She first discusses the work of Briggs and Bauman, who argued that the legacy of anthropologist Franz Boas has “trained ethnographic fieldworkers to use the metaphorical incentive of the book as a ‘storage-box’ to elicit texts, a method that […] gave him [Boas] enormous power to regulate the production, circulation, and reception of those accounts” (Cruikshank 2006:59). As Cruikshank demonstrates, Briggs and Bauman argued that such text collections provided for Boas and cultural anthropology a “direct access to timeless cultural traditions—to ‘myth’ rather than to history” (2006:59). In the process of gathering and re-contextualizing those texts, Cruikshank (2006) contended that Boas has erased his own particular role, while subsequently diminishing the Natives’ place as potential narrators, especially by disregarding the context in which their narratives and stories took place. She argued: “He subsequently re-rooted them in a thoroughly modernist practice—preservation and protection—while continuing to burnish them as authentic replications of ‘the native point of view’” (2006:59). Interested in those modernist practices of preservation, and building on political ecology’s insights, Cruikshank subsequently demonstrates that particular notions used in our discourses about nature (such as the construction of “wilderness”[3]) are utterly ethnocentric against indigenous populations such as First Nations, since they thoroughly erase “their prior occupancy, proceeded apace” (2006:255). These formulations and modernist practices thereby “deny varieties of local knowledge their own histories” (Cruikshank 2006:257), especially by freezing them as a mere set of apolitical stories and memories, which are irrelevant to some of our problems like global warming. In those conditions, we can see that the expertise of knowledgeable people, such as First Nations, are often taken out of their “evocative contexts” to be merely “taped, transcribed, codified, and labelled” (Cruikshank 2006:256).

Anthropologist Kregg Hetherington (2013) offers a similar example by studying the introduction of soybean to Paraguay and their unintended consequences. In particular, he focused on the recurring statements of Campesino activists who argued that soybean kills—a discourse that the state quickly dismissed as simply irrational. The interesting point is that Hetherington initially, like the State officials of Paraguay, disregarded the narratives surrounding the so-called killer beans, re-establishing in the process the “priority of frames of reference” in understanding a given problem (2013:71-72). Hetherington first thought that these discourses were, “at best, a figure of speech not meant to be taken literally or, at worst, a mistaken reading of the situation caused by a restricted understanding of what was going on” (2013:71-72). However, he later realized that disregarding the “political importance and analytic potential of the beans” was also a dismissal of the lives of Campesino activists (2013:82). Indeed, doing so was to consider the rural activists’ analyses of the problems brought by the introduction of soybean as something irrelevant (2013).

For the third case, I wish to look at Primate Visions, written by science and technology studies (STS) scholar Donna Haraway (1990). In her book, the author was interested in the scientific practice of physical anthropology and primatology as a form of “story-telling practice in the sense of historically specific practices of interpretation and testimony” (1990:4). Rather than taking the primatologists’ body of knowledge as an apolitical dogma, she takes it up as a set of discourses narrated by expert storytellers. Wishing to challenge the constructions of these stories, she put forward the numerous political stakes (relating to gender, race, colonialism, and scientific objectivity) that are to be found in the production of knowledge surrounding primates’ taxonomy (1990:3) She argues that “primatology is about an Order, a taxonomic and therefore political order that works by the negotiation of boundaries achieved through ordering differences” (1990:10). Her work has revealed how science, monkeys, and expertise—among others—were themselves embodied in the politics of the early and mid-20th century. By looking at physical anthropology from the vantage point of discourse and narrative, Haraway was able to see epistemic systems as “stories,” which are culturally specific and charged with political implications. Such stories are being told by particular groups of experts who might intentionally (or unintentionally) be silencing the voices of others. This could be a charming metaphor for the anthropologists whose fieldwork often consists of “collecting” stories from informants while trying to understand specific knowledge forms by looking over the shoulder of the so-called “Other”.[4]

Discussion: The Politics of Fieldwork

The numerous examples brought by Cruikshank, Hetherington, and Haraway, demonstrate how ethnographic works that might at first seem factual, neutral, and objective, more than often hide unconscious political and subjective frames that enable particular forms of knowledge, while disregarding others. They define what counts as expertise, who has the right to speak, and who should (silently) listen. In many of those cases, the pursuit of knowledge involves, as Allison (2001:386) argues, a “process in which the subject of inquiry is, almost by definition, reduced to the status of an object. And, in the case of the study of other cultures, this aggression is exacerbated even further.” Since the crisis of representation, perhaps best exemplified by Clifford and Marcus’ Writing Culture (1986), anthropologists have been more in tune with how univocal modern paradigms might be reinstating blatant dualisms that bring new forms of inequality, hierarchy, colonialism, racism, and ethnocentrism. All three previous authors are very attuned to what anthropologists and STS scholar Kim Fortun has called “discursive gaps” (2009). As she argued, “Discursive gaps are gaps in what discourses can say or even recognize. They are what people can’t get their heads and tongues around. They operate through disavowal and ignorance” (2009:9). The goal of being attuned to such gaps is something that echoes the aim of Haraway’s cyborg politics: a struggle that stands against “perfect communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallogocentrism” (1991:176)—in other words, a struggle against essentialist features and foundational categories.

What is also striking about the three case stories are the political implications that surround the very practice of ethnographic writing, as well as the place of the ethnographer. In the issues surrounding the creation of ethnographic work, it is important to be attuned to the role that anthropologists play, especially as “experts” who produce “first hand” accounts of given knowledge. Anthropology is indeed a science embedded in a rich history of colonialism, where the savage (sometimes noble) opposed the Victorian Englishman—a science where the expert, the ethnologist, relied not merely on its own memory but also on its anonymous and plural informants, the ghostwriter of their memoir. As philosopher Isabelle Stengers says:

The anthropologist produces, whether he wants it or not, a set relationship that is more often inherently asymmetrical: he reports to “us” a knowledge about other groups without putting to the foreground the relationship upon which his knowledge comes, or by simply being at the service of a science to produce. (2007:9)

Indeed, as Timothy Mitchell has argued, experts do not merely report social relations and knowledge forms; instead, they also work to format and produce them (2002:118). In that line of thought, anthropologists, who often speak more than one language,[5] need to be conscious of the political implications that their works of translation might imply. As historian Gyan Prakash explained, translation always implies a certain realignment of power, as well as a renegotiation of the unequal relationship between investigators and their subjects (1999:50). Going back to Memoirs of a Geisha, Allison (2001) has highlighted how the role of the outsider (in this case an American male writer) is crucial in shaping the story arch and its mass appeal to an English speaking audience, even though the memoir takes the form of a first person narrative told by the Geisha protagonist.[6]

While anthropologists have been warier of such difficulties, the problems are numerous and to be found on many levels. In that regard, anthropologist Arturo Escobar asks an interesting question: “How does one study and describe situations in which the objects or subjects are thoroughly constituted by the same knowledge practices of which the ethnographer herself is also a product?” (2008:294). Still, I think that political ecologist Paul Robbins has raised one of the most intelligible inquiries surrounding ethnographical issues. This question concerns how scholars, in search for the concepts used in political ecology, such as governmentality or marginalization, often discover them in the process of doing fieldwork (2004:151). Specifically, he argued: “The concepts pre-exist such discovery and so always seem to turn up! One key lesson is certainly that the reification of categories early in the research process may be limiting and unnecessarily constraining. Better political ecology requires care in this regard” (2004:151). While this warning was directed at political ecologists, any ethnographer can benefit from such an insight. Robbins was not looking to disregard the usefulness of our theories of knowledge; rather, he simply wished to emphasize the constraining aspects related to taken-for-granted notions.

Indeed, before going to the field, before writing a single line in its notebook, and even before meeting the people that they wishes to “study”, the anthropologist always knows what to look for. Yes, anthropologists might be lost in translation, they might not know where to look for it, who to learn it from, or when to gaze at it, but they always know what they are looking for, as they first and foremost track categories. Perhaps this is due to the predictive power of theory. Because, in many ways, that is what theory does: theory tells the ethnographer to locate what matters. In a sense, the horse is being put before the proverbial cart, as such teleology presupposes that we concretely know what matters for people that we have not even met, and who often do not share much of a modicum of economical luxury that a funded ethnographer has. Indeed, fieldworkers need to work “with a strict plan of investigation, which is what the granting agencies insist they manifest before they even go into the field” (Taussig 2011:48). Furthermore, by looking for specific problems, such as ecological degradation or political marginalization, the ethnographer is at risk of tracking such notions through Eurocentric values—an ethnocentric lens—and crystalizing those problems in given epistemological and ontological states. As Taussig notes: “Much of anthropology, certainly most that is funded, thus turns out to be telling other people’s stories without realizing that’s what you are doing, and telling them badly, very badly indeed – […] such stories are seen as mere steps toward the Greater Truth of the Abstraction” (2011:49).

In a related viewpoint, many scholars have successfully demonstrated that the “production of universal, totalizing theory is a major mistake that misses most of reality” (Haraway 1991:181). With this mindset, anthropologists have asked how they are politically situated in writing about the so-called “Other” in their own ethnographic practices. As Stoller highlights, anthropologist have recently experimented with diverse ethnographic forms that “did not conform to the tried and true realist structure of theoretical introduction, presentation of data, and conclusion” (2007:180). By blurring the lines between memoirs, imagination, and story, anthropologists have been more attuned to the subtle subjectivity of the ethnographer, the “empowered person who controls the construction of the text […]” (Stoller 2007:180). Yet, one should also consider how apolitical and non-located forms of knowledge are embedded, not merely in our writing paradigm, but also in the academic practices of anthropology, unconsciously re-establishing powerful frames of domination. We could say that anthropologists need to be mindful of their own academic modes of production, to their methods of producing (his)tories. For example, what is the concrete use of a $150 hardcover ethnographic inquiry—perhaps unaffordable by the marginalized, vulnerable informants—whose commercial success is made possible by a network of high-grossing universities’ libraries, later to be read by a minority of academics? Significantly, this academic minority might not share much of the problems discussed in the books, nor be in a position of power great enough to contribute to potent changes. Furthermore, trendsetting theories, which define the practice, expertise, and future of anthropological work, irremediably emerge from occidental languages, mostly epitomized by the lingua franca that is English. The very work of peer-review also erases any trace of individuality. The name of the ethnographer is replaced by the apolitical and phantomatical ‘I’. Funding projects bring this to a next level; as Taussig argues: “Invariably the application begins not with ‘I wish to study…,’ but with ‘This project is aimed at…’ In one stroke anything subjective is not so much erased as it is disguised and distorted by this language” (2011:48).

In the Heart of Darkness

Kim Fortun has argued that scholars of anthropology are “always confronted with more to understand and more to address than is possible” (2001:350). As a young scholar focusing on the Fukushima nuclear disaster (Polleri 2015, 2016), I especially know that this is the case. Yet, this is not what scares me the most. After all, the numerous problems that surround the issue of nuclear contamination in the aftermath of this disaster cannot be captured in their entirety. Neither should they be, as this denies “the stakes in location, embodiment, and partial perspective” (Haraway 1991:191), one of the best contributions that an ethnographer can make as to what regards a given problem. In the midst of doing fieldwork, what scares me the most is how and why I write. At night, when I try to recall the encounters that have constituted my working day in order to lay them on paper, I cannot help but to get that weird feeling, that “sinking feeling that the reality depicted receded, that the writing is actually pushing reality off the page” (Taussig 2011:16). As Taussig argues: “Perhaps it is an illusion. But then, illusions are real too” (2011:16).

As an anthropologist, I am interested in how diverse forms of knowledge and being interact, and to what extent different actors articulate them. In that line of thought, every scholar should be careful about the investment in an anthropological epistemological practice used to study other epistemological practices and forms; exploring the tensions of epistemologies as a frame of reference itself remains important. In other words, a reflection of anthropological knowledge production in understanding how one writes about people has started to haunt me. In this context, I have begun to ask: for whom do I write? And the answer is an egoistic one: me. As a young scholar, one cannot help but to produce a very specific form of expertise, reflective of a particular academic framing, and one that revolves around publications, conferences, and thesis writing. After all, this article has focused on the diverse processes of negotiation, translation, and power inequalities affecting the relationship of humans in the production of an ethnographic paradigm. While this is still a broader notion of ‘the political’ it still represents a cultural obsession of North American anthropologists. For this reason, I do construct knowledge in a very selective manner. One cannot help but to come full circle back to the memoir, which is also the indulgence of one’s feelings; a form of writing that is sometimes contended with an egoistic self-absorption, where one chooses the memories and people that matter.

On the other hand, a memoir is never a memoir without a public, and ethnographic writing also implies a set of relations, an ongoing politics between the ‘I’ and multiple forms of otherness that are imaginatively materialized on paper. As Taussig notes, “there is always a bigger ‘you’ than yourself, a ‘you’ of many readers looking over your shoulder” (2011:77). An ethnography is not an ethnography in “good and due form” without its body of experts that categorize it as so.

When I glance at my notebook, I begin to see two things. I see sanitized data, under the form of facts, evidence, and information, where the “imaginative logic of discovery” is quickly “followed by the harsh discipline of proof” (Taussig 2011:xi). Between the lines of my notebook, I see something else, memories that do not seem to “fit”, memories that matter—inevitably for some of my informants – but not for the requirements of my particular academic framing.[7] Taussig has argued that the notebook lies “at the outer reaches of language and order” (2011:118). Yet, as an ethnographer interested in Japanese culture, I still write in my notebook from left to right, never from up to down. Writing a memoir is an occupation devoid of any surprises, as the story irremediably revolves around the same protagonist. To some extent, ethnographers should be mindful of this insight. What anthropologists need are alternative forms of narrative that can, as Gosselin (2011: 142) argues, avoid any false representations of a given finality. These alternative narratives must effectively suppress politically dominant discourses, without themselves becoming a prevalent paradigm. Upon leaving Fukushima, I wonder if the memories associated with the pain of other people will be erased forever? In the loud rumble of the metallic beast, will I even be able to hear Mistah Kurtz murmuring: “The horror! The horror!”?

Works Cited

Allison, Anne. 2001. “Memoirs of the Orient.” The Journal of Japanese Studies 27(2):381-398.

Clifford, James and George Marcus, eds. 1986. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Conrad, Margaret. 1986.“Ego and Autobiography: Three Political Memoirs.” Acadiensis 16(1):149-154.

Cronon, William. 1996.“Foreword.” In Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. William Cronon, ed., 19-22. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Cruikshank, Julie. 2006. Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Deibel, Terry L. 2002.“Teaching Foreign Policy with Memoirs.” International Studies Perspective 3:128-138.

Escobar, Arturo. 2008. Territories of Difference: Place, Movements, Life, Redes. Durham: Duke University Press.

Descola, Philippe. 2001.“Par-Delà la Nature et la Culture.” Le Débat 2(114):86-101.

–—-. 2011. L’Écologie des Autres: L’Anthropologie et la Question de la Nature. Paris: Éditions Quae.

Fortun, Kim. 2001. Advocacy after Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

–—-. 2009.“Biopolitics and the Informating of Environmentalism.” In Lively Capital. Kaushik Sunder Rajan, ed., 307-326. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Gamble, Andrew. 1994.“Political Memoirs.” Politics 14(1):35-41.

Golden, Arthur. 1997. Memoirs of a Geisha. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Gosselin, Abigail. 2011.“Memoirs as Mirrors: Counterstories in Contemporary Memoir.” Narrative 19(1):133-148.

Haraway, Donna. 1990. Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. New York: Routledge.

–—-. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.

Hetherington, Kregg. 2013.“Beans before the Law: Knowledge Practices, Responsibility, and Paraguayan Soy Boom.” Cultural Anthropology 28(1):65-85.

Ingold, Tim. 2013.“Dreaming of Dragons: On the Imagination of Real Life.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19(4):734-752.

Kirksey, S. Eben. 2009.“Don’t Use Your Data as a Pillow.” In Anthropology off the Shelf: Anthropologists on Writing. Alisse Waterston and Maria D. Vesperi, eds., 146-159. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Lamy, Alice. 2008.“Présentation.”“L’Introduction des Structures Élémentaires de la Parenté: Un Texte Philosophique?” In Nature, Culture, et Société: Structures Élémentaires de la Parenté. Chapitres I et II, 9-46. Paris: Flammarion.

Latour, Bruno. 2003.“Le Rappel de la Modernité – Approches Anthropologiques.” Conférence dans le séminaire Descola au Collège de France, November 26, 2003.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1973. Tristes Tropiques. New York: Penguin Books.

Mitchell, Timothy. 2002. Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-politics and Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Polleri, Maxime 2015.“‘Matters’ of Importance: Contamination in the Aftermath of the Fukushima Disaster.” Nexus: The Canadian Student Journal of Anthropology 23(1):13-25.

–—-. 2016.“Tracking Radioactive Contamination after Fukushima.” Anthropology Now 8(2):90-103.

Prakash, Gyan. 1999. Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rapport, Nigel and Joanna Overing. 2007. Social and Cultural Anthropology: The Key Concepts. New York: Routledge.

Robbins, Paul. 2004. Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Rubio, Fernando Domínguez and Patrick Baert. 2012.“Introduction.” In The Politics of Knowledge. Fernando Domínguez Rubio and Patrick Baert, ed., 1-10. New York: Routledge.

Stengers, Isabelle. 2007. Cosmopolitiques VII. Paris: Découverte.

Stoller, Paul. 2007.“Ethnography/Memoir/Imagination/Story.” Anthropology and Humanism 32(2):178-191.

Taussig, Michael. 2011. I Swear I Saw This: Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Namely My Own. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Yoneyama, Lisa. 1995.“Memory Matters: Hiroshima’s Korean Atom Bomb Memorial and the Politics of Ethnicity.” Public Culture 7: 499-527.

End Notes

[1]Memoirs of a Geisha is a book that makes use of exoticism. As Anne Allison argues: “The book is written in such a way that it fosters the impression of taking a trip to an exotic, distant land whose foreignness is ‘unmasked’ and whose ‘veil of secrecy’ lifted, allowing readers/travellers to enter into a ‘secret world of the geisha’” (2001:382).

[2]. Of course, such sayings hereby apply to a pre-WWII anthropology. The anthropologist positionality has been extensively questioned in the 80s. As Allison (2001:390) argues, anthropologists have become much more self reflective at unmasking their “own positionality and rhetorical strategies when studying (and representing) others.”

[3]. For example, William Cronon (1996) argues that wilderness should not merely be thought of as a mutually exclusive ontological realm, but also as a social and cultural construct.

[4]. Reading over the shoulder of the “Other” echoes the scholarship of Clifford Geertz, and his idea of reading cultural practices as “texts.” His work has also been seen as straddling the literary and the non-fictional.

[5]. Even monolingual anthropologists can be said to speak more than one ‘language’ if they are attuned, for example, to the vernacular forms of a language, to ‘scientific’ talk, or to the slangs of subcultures.

[6]. The real Geisha that inspired those events later sued Goldman for defamation and wrote her own memoirs in order to set the stakes right by telling the “true” story. Too often, in ethnographic accounts, as in memoirs, the memory of others can only achieve true value and authority in the actual hand of anthropologists or American novelists.

[7]. In that regard, Allison (2001:383) has asked us to reflect on the extent toward which a writer is responsible for the effect of his or her writing. This is made even more important when we consider that specific cultures and societies do get “known and seen through our representations” (383).

Body, Nature, and Society: neonatal resuscitation [En] | Corps, Nature et Société : la réanimation néonatale [Fr]

by Clara Czuppon
Undergraduate Student | Université Lumière Lyon 2, Lyon, France


Modern medicine questions the link between nature, society, and body through the development of the medical technology and the increase of life expectancy. Based on anthropological and sociological resources, this paper will try to unpack the Western vision of an ill body and the treatments that are established in response. This critical reflection on neonatal resuscitation will lead me to propose the need to re-evaluate such system. I will use a transcultural approach when analyzing the care that is given to newborns presenting a critical vital prognostic, while drawing specifically on French-based research. In its attempt to postpone death, biomedicine has allowed for humans to challenge nature and its inexorable processes, and defy the physiological laws. However, what is the price for this progress? In order to tackle these sensitive issues, it is important to leave our judgements behind and to study our therapeutic practices with a new perspective.

La médecine moderne redéfini le lien entre nature, société, et corps au travers de l’essor des diverses technologies et par le prolongement de la vie. S’appuyant sur des références anthropologiques, sociologiques mais également éthiques, cet article tentera de déconstruire la vision occidentale d’un corps diminué et l’ampleur des traitements mis en place. Cette réflexion critique de la réanimation néonatale me permettra de proposer une réévaluation du système biomédical. J’utiliserai une approche transculturelle des soins adressés aux nourrissons présentant un pronostic vital critique, me concentrant sur la situation française. En s’efforçant d’éloigner la mort, la biomédecine a réussi à autonomiser le corps face à la nature, repoussant les lois physiologiques. Cependant, à quel prix s’effectue ce progrès? Pour appréhender ces questions sensibles, il importe de se départir de tout jugement et d’étudier d’un œil nouveau nos pratiques thérapeutiques.

Key words: resuscitation, neonatality, hospital, body, life | réanimation, néonatalité, hôpital, corps, vie

Publication Information
Volume 3, Issue 1 (2017)

“Mankind has a story because it transforms nature,”[1] wrote Maurice Godelier in his book L’idéel et le Matériel (1984). Therefore, the technical progress of modern medicine, the increasing life expectancy, and the decrease of diseases and of child mortality, are the results of human acts upon nature, the material body, and the environment that have modulated our perception of the biological. This perception is socially constructed and greatly influences how we act upon our surroundings through discourses of health, the dominant medical system, or even through our every-day bodily habits.

The evocation of an “abnormal” child—a notion that I will revisit later in this paper—who is abandoned or killed at birth in some African groups can, for example, questions our ways of thinking about death, birth, and the body.  It leads us to try to unpack our own understanding of a “complicated” birth, wherein the birth of a child presents respiratory or cardiac difficulties, or any other serious physiological symptoms. Western legislation and morality advocate setting up every possible measure to keep the child alive in order to “try to give him back autonomy and health”[2] (Dehan 1993:207). How do we justify that this notion is more ethically correct or more moral? Suppose we try to adopt Levi Strauss’ view from afar and imagine what the Lobi from Burkina-Faso would think of our efforts to keep a sick child alive, who they would consider as a soul stuck in the wrong body, a disabled body, begging to be released. It is important here to leave our judgements behind in order to grasp the practices and notions that differ from the ones rooted in biomedical societies. This method will be helpful to critically analyze the intense resuscitation procedures used in modern medicine. Nowadays, one baby out of ten is born prematurely which results in fifteen million babies per year who will spend the first moments of their lives in a neonatal resuscitation department (Antje Christ 2014). The resuscitation process can seem aggressive as it consists of forcibly reviving a body. For a newborn, this can result in severe physical, cerebral, and moral consequences: two thirds of the babies saved by neonatal resuscitation suffer from after-effects (2014). Even though the idea of saving an individual whose life is compromised seems obvious, how should we think about the body—which cannot be reduced to solely the physical—in order to make it suffer as little as possible? How does the treatment of a disease question society, nature, and the body when it threatens a newborn’s life?

First, we should look at the social frameworks of Western medicine in order to explore the issue of the roles of nature and society in the process of resuscitation, and how this questions the notion of the body. Like any other medical system, modern medicine is the product of a social, political, and historical process that extends over three centuries and which has become the dominant system in the Western societies (Foucault 1963). Even though medical pluralism is still common among individual practices and is becoming more and more institutionalized, it remains marginal compared to the hegemony of biomedicine. That is why I will focus on the latter. Throughout this article, I will unpack the major principles and assumptions that underlie biomedicine with the aim of proposing a critique of its functioning. Based upon various anthropological and ethical sources, I will present the majors issues surrounding these procedures and some existing strategies toward the acknowledgement of a humanity of the body.

The Cultural Frameworks for the Development of Modern medicine and neonatal resuscitation

The Denied Death

For several decades, Western society has experienced various waves of medical innovations that were meant to lengthen life expectancy, cure an increased number of diseases, and resuscitate bodies in more and more critical conditions. This set of measures manifested in a shift in the conception of death; “even though it was familiar because of its presence in the past, death will fade and disappear. It has become shameful and taboo.”[3] This is the analysis presented by Philippe Ariès in Essai sur l’Histoire de la Mort en Occident (quoted by Revault d’Allonnes 2014). Death is no longer part of our existence, it has become a parameter that we wish to forget and postpone as long as we can. David Le Breton speaks of this as a “contemporary denial of death”[4] (2011:290).

Yet it has not always been this way and even today some regions of the world do not experience death as we do. Death in our society appears as “an end in itself” (Bloch 1993:9), where the after-death is hard to conceive of. On the other hand, the Greeks, for instance, used to perceive death as an integral part of life, just like birth. Questioning death necessarily leads to questioning the notion of personhood, shaped by a given culture (1993). Modern medicine conceives of the individual as indivisible: our inner elements are all biologically tied and connected without marked division between body and the spirit; the death of one results in the death of the other. In contrast, the Christian idealism divided the mind and the body: the soul is everything whereas the body is nothing (Valette 2013:124). Hence, physical death is not an end in itself, the soul continues to exist. These ideas can also be found in some West African populations, such as the Lobi of Burkina Faso, where the idea of reincarnation is pervasive. The new born child receives a double “tuh” from the body of a dead person: this spirit comes to pursue his life in the body of the child as his vital double (Cros 1990). Death is seen as a passage between two states but does not mark a definitive end: the death of someone will be the birth of someone else. This is a cyclic conception of life.

These examples highlight the strong link between the different interpretations of death and the social practices that are related to it. Thus, a Westernized conception of death appears through the “dedication” of biomedicine to keep it away (Revault d’Allones and Van Reeth 2014). However, should we accept all these developments of Western science? Today, we are able to defy a “state of apparent death”, but to what extent can be decide to neglect death?

The Ethical Debates

Medical progress, taken as the postponement of death, raises numerous ethical issues. In France, the use of intensive medication is defined by the Charte des soins palliatifs et de l’accompagnement (the Charter of the palliative care and support)[5] of 1993 as “the act of pursuing of an invasive therapy with a curative aim, supposed to extend life expectancy without taking into account the quality of this life, whereas there is no reasonable hope for an improvement of the patient’s state.” This notion is at the core of a lively debate between the medical staff, the patient’s relatives, the thinkers, and public opinion, which has reached the neonatal resuscitation department since the 1980’s (Paillet 2007:176). This department is at the heart of a dilemma: keeping a baby in a very bad condition alive, often after a premature birth, while compromising the quality of its future life as little as possible. Western medicine tends to resuscitate ever more weakened and premature babies with more risks of after effects for their body. It has recently been met with fierce resistance from certain practitioners, parents, and the French Comité Consultatif National d’Éthique – CCNE (the National Consultative Committee of Ethic) (Paillet 2007). Specialists’ discussions are built around the questions of “Who should be reanimated?” and “How far should we go?” that emphasize the notions of medical selecting and decision-making power. Throughout this article, I will use the term morality to refer to the rules of conduct that reveal a sense of good and bad present in each member of a society and partly shaped by this one, in this particular case the Western society. I will use the term ethic to designate the philosophical domain that approaches, theorizes, and applies the basis of this morality.

Neonatal resuscitation is circumscribed by certain legal texts that delimit these debates. In France, doctors have to take care of a child born after 24 or 26 weeks of amenorrhea (lack of menstruation) – a child is considered as premature if he is born before 37 weeks of gestation. In Japan, the obligation of saving a new born is set at 22 weeks while it is only set at 28 weeks of amenorrhea in China (Antje Christ 2014). This observation reveals the different relations that specific countries maintain with natality. Before these deadlines, law does not recommend any action: the decision lies with the medical staff. Beyond these questions, neonatal resuscitation largely depends on the morality of doctors, which is shaped by society. As in many other Western countries, euthanasia—provoking the death of a patient in order to abridge his or her suffering in the case of an incurable disease—is forbidden in France and in Canada (Butler and al. 2013). Regarding neonatology, the notice n°65 of the CCNE implies that if the brain lesions are too substantial and seriously compromise the future possibility of the child to be autonomous (respiratory autonomy), it should be reasonable to consider the end of treatment (Gisquet 2008:17). However, the stopping of treatment for an autonomous child is still rarely used and has to come after many team discussions.

During these serious and irreversible decisions, how are we to know who should decide? Should the discussion involve both the parents and the medical team? Should it rely only on the experts’ choices, who take into account every parameter in evaluating the chances of the child and the quality of its future life? These issues are at the core of the politics of hospitals: while some choose to give the parents the decision-making power as in United States, others prefer to push them aside, invoking the huge psychological and moral burden that such decisions can imply (Antje Christ 2014).

These ethical concerns about the future life of the child, the moral obligation of the medical staff, and the decision-making responsibility, demonstrate a certain medical practice exercised in Western societies, which aims to dominate nature.

Natural and Social Body

Questioning the Role of Nature

Pierre Erny describes the child as “a man in a state of nature”[6] (1988:52). It ensures the passage between nature, the biological birth, and culture, the social birth and the assimilation of the diverse cultural features. Françoise Loux, in Le jeune enfant et son corps dans la médecine traditionelle, refers to the past century in France, when the childhood diseases were so common that they were considered as “inevitable sicknesses”[7] (1978:240). The French used to resort to herbal treatments or amulets to cure them. Every action upon the body of a newborn is an action upon an environment and reveals a particular interpretation of nature. Neonatal resuscitation is thus a way to make sense of what we cannot control: death and its hazards. The analysis of Françoise de Barbot states that we have acquired an illusion of domination upon nature through medical and technological models (1993:157).

In anthropology, the movement of cultural materialism ascribes a social response to every natural phenomenon. Thus, the African ritual infanticides of “abnormal” children would be a response to the imbalance between an overpopulation and limited natural resources (Descola 2011). Although these theories have been criticized, we can draw a parallel with the Chinese one-child policy, set as a reaction to the extreme increase of population. Today, China does not save children born before 28 weeks of amenorrhea. Contraception, and particularly D.H Meadows’ analysis of it in a collective report entitled Limits to growth (1972), can also relate to these preoccupations. She predicted that such an increase of population would cause a loss of control and that the State would have to take measures to restrain natality. She anticipated the Foucauldian notion of bio-power, introduced by the philosopher in his work La Volonté de savoir (The Will of Knowledge 1978). Bio-power refers to the power of the authorities (the sovereign, the government, and the institutions) over the life and death of individuals. It shifted from “kill and let live”, in the monarchist and feudal systems, to “keep alive and let die”[8] in our current society (Rose and Rabinow 2006). Thus, power can express itself by the management of life rather than by the threat of death. Intervention and regulation established by power enable greater control of the population. By restricting human bodies to statistics and controlling their numbers, the new science of demography—whose emergence is tied with capitalism—became a medium for this “bio-power” (Foucault 1976:184). This idea is at the core of resuscitation and, more broadly, of modern medicine. Politics are at stake in the dialogue between nature and technique, and shape it differently when framing concepts such as the normal and abnormal.

What biological norm is involved in the practice of resuscitation? Is it “normal” to reanimate a patient that presents all aspects of a physical death? Georges Canguilhem is one of the great French philosophers who have thought about the notion of biological norm: “In anthropological experience a norm cannot be original. Rule begins to be rule only in making rules and this function of correction arises from infraction itself” (1978:241). According to him, the patients and the experts’ discourses build the norm by formulating their condition, and recovery tends to bring back this norm as it gets closer to the usual and ideal state. Later in his book The Normal and the Pathological, Canguilhem tackles the natural selection of Darwin (1978). We can adapt this idea of a struggle between man and nature to how modern medicine supports patients in every pathological complication they encounter. Is Western medicine trying to thwart this principle? Nowadays, having an “inferior” or “superior”—to use the words of George Guille-Escuret—genotype is not what will determine survival (1989:31). Nature as described by Darwin has lost its power in these times of medical technology. In the words of Danielle Hervieu-Leger: “In ultra-modern societies, nature is no longer an order”[9] (2003:241); it is above all perceptions of the environment that are culturally, historically, and socially constructed.

The Body as a Social Model

The body is a core element in society: it exists where mankind is present, and its conception is shaped by social representations. Thoughts on the body of a child vary among societies. For example, some Bantu speaking peoples of South Africa consider that the child is not a part of the world until it goes through a social birth, which often corresponds to the apparition of the first teeth. Before that point, it is a “water-baby” and has no name, no social identity. Its soul can decide to go back to water—its original milieu—and implies the death of the baby’s body without unleashing the emotions of the family (Erny 1988). Another example of this diversity could be the Lobi of Burkina Faso, who believe that the child is inhabited by a “tuh”, a vital double that can appear as respiration or as a mortal spirit. The reactions of the child are attributed to its “tuh”: if it is crying too much or if its health is uncertain, it means that its “tuh” wants to leave the world of the living and go back across the rivers, where it came from. If it leaves, the body will die (Cros 1990).

The truth about the body, and especially about the sick body, emerges with diagnosis. Compliance with medical discourse is important in modern medicine as well as in the traditional one (Le Breton 2011). The realities that both of them produce are at the core of the representations of the body; based on their different diagnosis, they are not referring to the same conception of the world. As far as modern medicine is concerned, Foucault, following Canguilhem’s arguments, claims than the normality of the body is defined and constructed by the clinical experience. Since the Enlightenment, medical developments have shaped medicine in such a way that its truth lies in a unique gaze, that of the experts, whose light is held as true and objective (Foucault 1973:xiii).

The various perceptions of the body are the results of a historical, geographical, and dynamic process that tends to make sense of what eludes our understanding, like many other social phenomena. The frameworks for the interpretation of the body and diseases are ways to understand our environment. The reality of our body is symbolic and this social symbolism is the basis of action.

Body and Treatments

The Primacy of the Result: Life

In the process of resuscitation, the first step and probably the most important one (morally, ethically, and medically) is the maintenance of life. Pierre Valette exposes the ethics of modern medicine as “you can therefore you must”[10] (2013:217). As soon as practitioners have the capacity to act against death, they have to do so immediately before any other kind of consideration, if they want to avoid being accused of negligence. Bringing a patient back to life comes before all else, even prior to thinking of the neurological consequences of such methods. Michel Dehan and Marie-Antoinette Bouguin speak of a “moral duty”[11] to provide assistance to everyone and, secondly, to stop the treatments if the future is not worth considering. The period of this diagnosis is called the “standby resuscitation”, which keeps the patient alive without a promise of remission. Faced with the law and public opinion, doctors can “only accept death as a last resort”[12] (1993:201). These increasingly effective mechanisms are various ways of circumventing death: medical care and new technological tools multiply the chances for survival. The state of apparent death – a very deep coma where all the vital functions slow down – is now reversible (Gisquet 2008).

In emergency situations where a child is endangered, what limits can we set to avoid the use of intensive interventions? Bioethical codes are trying hard to answer these sensitive issues. In the department of neonatal resuscitation, the life of the child is quickly compromised because the nerves endings are still developing and fragile: if the brain does not receive oxygen, these connections cannot be made. Therefore, we should not therapeutically conceive of the body of the baby without taking into account the sequelae caused by the processes of resuscitation. In some cases, Myriam Révault d’Allonnes and Adèle Van Reeth discuss the treatments of “mindless obstinacy”[13] (2014). The Leonetti Law, promulgated in France on April the 22nd, 2005 defines it as: “The pursuance of active treatments that seem useless according to the current state of medicine, or that their benefits—in terms of quality of life and comfort—are disproportionate compared to the risks, the inconvenience, and the moral and physical pain they create.”[14] In that case, how can we avoid such an extreme process where life—as a biological reality—takes priority over the social and psychological future of the child?

The goal of modern medicine would then be to guarantee and value the quality of the newborn’s future life, to persevere it within reason (Paillet 2007:81).

The Dehumanized Body

Modern medicine, more specifically the resuscitation departments, are full of pipes, wires, computers, machines, defibrillators, and other kinds of technological devices that act in a quasi-automatic way upon patient’s body. In Japan, the premature baby is immediately connected to software that continuously calculates and analyzes the bodily variations of the newborn (Antje Christ 2014). According to David Le Breton, this equipment is a part of the dehumanizing process occurring in modern medicine towards the patient. It tends to objectify the subject by trying to separate the individual and the biological mechanisms. The body becomes a “puzzle”: only specific organs or affected areas are focused on, as if they were independent from the rest of the body (2011:293). The diagnostic can be perceived as a series of parameters that will decide the patient’s chances of survival. Medicine deals with the “human machine”[15] (2011:15), the sick person is treated as a mechanism and the body is fragmented. Similarly, we sometimes hear the term “broken children” when it comes to the newborns who have suffered from an active resuscitation process, damaged as objects (Paillet 2007:35).

In her “Monographie du Service A” (Monograph of Department A), Elsa Guisquet copies the report of a doctor concerning a baby in intensive care at a French hospital. The report presents the variations of the child’s state using technical terms such as “EEG”, “ETF”, “MMH”, “HIV de grade IV”, and other numbers and acronyms that are considered as “normal” or “dense”. The standardization of the methods of examination contributed to the standardization of the bodies treated by the same gestures and processes (2008:42).

The repetitive character of the surgeons’ gestures tends to associate their work with a machine-like mechanism (Le Breton 2011). Modern medicine transforms the patient into a profitable medium to exercise its techniques; Didier Sicard, the CCNE president, talks about a “medicine eager for technology”[16] (quoted by Hennezel 2014:87). By comparing modern medicine and the labor mechanisms, Claude Raisky even attributes to medicine the notion of productivity and instrumentality (2003).

The discussions about the life and death of a child should not be tackled by this reductive perspective. Although we notice a necessary attitude of detachment in the discourses of the medical staff toward these terrible decisions, they have to consider the humanity of the newborn and the situation of the family.

Restoring Humanity

The acknowledgement of a newborn as a human being does not seem obvious and has been clearly stated only for a couple of decades. Before, the medical staff could decide not to give the newborn a chance and not to reanimate it. Nowadays, it is against human rights.

When a baby is brought to the intensive care department, it is obviously not able to make its own decisions or to express its opinion. The parents are thus considered as responsible for the agency of their child. Their essential role is to be with it, in order to maintain a link with the outside world and not to deprive it of any kind of relationship. The hospital of Cologne in Germany, proved that physical contact with the mother was a key element in the brain development of the premature baby. The symbiosis of their two bodies in the “kangaroo” position (the child leaning on the mother’s chest) calms the baby and stimulates sleep, a determining factor to gain weight (Antje Christ 2014). This maternal presence can also be assured by the nurses. Guisquet contrasts the technique of “senior” practitioners, who focus on biological development and have to run from a delivery to another, to the humanity conveyed by the nurses that accompany the patients through their recovery. The nurses take the time every day to touch, speak, and carry the baby. They focus on its reactions, its agitation, its tears, rather than the biological features and present all these observations in their report, which the doctors confess they do not often read (2008:42).

The importance of maintaining a link between the external world and the baby has been demonstrated by many scientific studies. Some hospitals such as the ones in Zurich and Cologne integrate the practice of musicology in the treatment of premature babies. They also encourage the parents to stay several hours each day with their child and promote physical contact. In these two hospitals, these practices drastically increased the creation of the nerve endings, which had not been created within the mother’s womb, and minimized the risk of future sequela (Antje Christ 2014). These examples demonstrate the medical team’s efforts not to restrict the baby’s body to a pathology that needs to be cured, following Canguilhem’s term, but rather to put it in a wider perspective to restore its humanity.


In trying to defy death and disease, modern medicine takes part in a wider process of emancipation from nature, shaped by the social representations of death as the end of life. These perceptions of nature are meaningful and are the foundations of the medical actions on a body considered as “sick”. The example of neonatal resuscitation reveals the diverse factors that contribute to our vision of the body, and questions our morals and our race against death. Neonatal resuscitation calls upon numerous concerns around the notion of decision-making, responsibility, and humanity. Comparing our practices with those of other cultures, which could be distant in time or space, enables a critical distance from the strong feelings involved in this tough issue. The technological progress of medicine has shifted the anxieties of birth from the incertitude of the survival to the endangerment of the baby’s quality of life through the use of intense methods of resuscitation. Hence, they raise numerous ethical issues that are rooted in a major question whose legitimacy can also be challenged: What life is worth living?


Version Français

« L’homme a une histoire parce qu’il transforme la nature » écrivait Godelier dans L’idéel et le matériel (1984). Les progrès techniques de la médecine moderne, l’allongement de la vie, le recul des maladies, la baisse de la mortalité infantile, sont donc une partie des résultats des actes humains sur la nature, sur un corps physique et sur un environnement, et participent encore à transformer notre perception du biologique. Cette dernière est construite socialement et influe grandement la façon d’agir sur ce qui nous entoure.

Ainsi, l’évocation d’un enfant « anormal », notion sur laquelle nous reviendrons, mis à mort ou abandonné à sa naissance, dans quelques groupes d’Afrique de l’ouest notamment, nous interroge sur les manières de penser la mort, le corps et la naissance chez chacun d’entre eux. Pourtant, tentons d’examiner notre propre appréhension des naissances qualifiées de « compliquées », j’entends par là la venue au monde d’un enfant présentant des difficultés respiratoires, cardiaques et autres symptômes physiologiques graves. Tant la législation que la morale occidentales prônent la mise en place de tous les dispositifs possibles pour assurer le maintien en vie de l’enfant afin de « tenter de lui rendre autonomie et santé » (Dehan 1993:207) ; comment justifier que cette pensée est la plus éthiquement correcte, la plus morale? Essayons d’adopter le regard éloigné de Lévi-Strauss et demandons-nous ce que pourraient penser, par exemple, les Lobi du Burina Faso de nos efforts pour maintenir en vie un enfant malade qu’ils considéreraient comme une âme venue dans un mauvais corps, un corps handicapé, ne demandant qu’à être libérée. Il s’agit ici de se départir de tout jugement pour appréhender des pratiques et conceptions qui diffèrent de celles solidement enracinées dans les sociétés biomédicalisées. Cette méthode nous sera d’une aide précieuse pour étudier d’un œil critique les procédures de sauvetage extrêmes mises en place par la médicine moderne. Aujourd’hui, un bébé sur dix né prématurément, ce sont quinze millions de bébés par an qui font leurs premiers pas dans la vie au sein d’un service de réanimation néonatale (Antje Christ 2014). Le processus de réanimation est un processus pouvant sembler violent qui consiste à ramener un corps à la vie de force. Chez un nourrisson, il peut engendrer de lourdes conséquences physiques, cérébrales et morales: deux tiers des enfants sauvés en réanimation néonatale souffrent de séquelles (2014). S’il nous paraît évident de sauver un individu dont la vie est compromise, comment penser le corps—qui ne se réduit pas à des caractéristiques physiques—pour lui infliger le moins de souffrances possibles? Comment le traitement de la maladie interroge la nature, la société et le corps lorsqu’elle menace les premiers jours de l’enfant?

Il s’agit de regarder dans un premier temps les cadres sociaux de la médecine moderne pour ensuite explorer la question de la place de nature et du social dans le processus de réanimation et comment celui-ci questionne la notion de corps. La médecine moderne, comme tout système médical, est le produit d’un processus social, politique et historique, qui dure depuis plus de trois siècles et qui est devenu le système dominant dans les sociétés dîtes occidentales (Foucault 1963). Bien que le pluralisme médical soit encore courant au sein des pratiques de soins individuels et tend à être de plus en plus institutionnalisé, il reste minime face à l’hégémonie de la biomédecine, c’est pourquoi je me concentrerai sur celle-ci. Tout au long de cet article, je m’attacherai à déconstruire les principes que supporte la biomédecine dans le but de proposer une critique de son fonctionnement. En m’appuyant sur des sources anthropologiques mais également éthiques portant majoritairement sur la situation Française, je présenterai les questionnements majeurs entourant ces procédures et les stratégies existantes vers la reconnaissance de l’humanité du corps.

Dans quels cadres sociaux se développent la médecine moderne et la réanimation néonatale ?

La mort niée

Depuis plusieurs décennies, la société occidentale est marquée par un flot d’innovations médicales destinées à prolonger la vie, soigner de plus en plus de maladies et réanimer des corps dans des états de plus en plus critiques. Cet ensemble de mesures se traduit par le changement du statut de la mort; « si présente autrefois tant elle était familière, [elle] va s’effacer et disparaître. Elle devient honteuse et objet d’interdits », telle en est l’analyse qu’offre Philippe Ariès dans son Essai sur l’histoire de la mort en Occident (cité par Revault d’Allonnes 2014). La mort ne fait plus partie de notre existence, elle en devient un paramètre que l’on souhaite oublier en le repoussant le plus possible; David Le Breton parle de « déni contemporain de la mort » (2011:290). 

Pourtant il n’en a pas toujours été ainsi et aujourd’hui encore, certaines régions du monde n’ont pas la même expérience de la mort et ne l’approche pas de la même manière que nous. La mort nous apparaît comme « une fin en soi » (Bloch 1993:9), où l’après n’est que difficilement imaginable. Les Grecs, par exemple, ne considéraient pas la mort si différente de la vie: elle en faisait partie, au même titre que la naissance. Dès que l’on interroge la mort, on interroge nécessairement la notion de personne modelée par une culture donnée (1993). La médecine moderne nous pense comme indivisibles, nos éléments internes solidement reliés biologiquement, sans division marquée du corps et de l’esprit: la mort d’une partie entraîne celle de l’autre. À l’opposé, l’idéalisme chrétien se construit autour d’une division du corps et de l’esprit: l’âme est tout et le corps n’est rien (Valette 2013:124). La mort physique n’est donc pas une fin en soi, l’âme continuera de vivre. C’est ce type de conception que l’on retrouve chez les peuples d’Afrique de l’Ouest, tels que les Lobi du Burkina Faso, où l’idée qui prédomine est celle de la réincarnation. L’enfant qui naît reçoit un double « tuh » qui a quitté le corps d’un mort pour se réincarner dans celui d’un nouveau-né, il sera son double vital (Cros 1990). La mort n’est donc qu’un passage entre deux états et ne marque en rien une fin : la mort d’un individu se traduira par la naissance d’un autre. On peut parler de conception cyclique de la vie.

Ces quelques exemples prouvent que les interprétations de la mort sont au centre des actions que les Hommes mettent en place pour agir sur cette dernière. En s’obstinant à repousser la fin de la vie, la médecine moderne véhicule une certaine conception de celle-ci (Revault d’Allones et Van Reeth 2014). Mais peut-on accepter tous ces changements? Jusqu’où irons-nous dans la négation de la mort ? Nous sommes aujourd’hui capables de déjouer un « état de mort apparente » mais peut-on décider d’une limite?

Les débats éthiques soulevés

Le progrès médical, si on le considère comme le recul de la mort, pose de nombreux problèmes éthiques. L’acharnement thérapeutique est défini par la Charte des soins palliatifs et de l’accompagnement (1993) de la Société Française des Soins Palliatifs et de l’Accompagnement par l’attitude qui consiste à « poursuivre une thérapeutique lourde à visée curative, qui n’aurait comme objet que de prolonger la vie sans tenir compte de sa qualité, alors qu’il n’existe aucun espoir raisonnable d’obtenir une amélioration de l’état du malade ». Cette notion est au cœur d’un vif débat entre l’équipe médicale, les proches des patients, les penseurs et l’opinion publique, qui a atteint le service de réanimation néonatale dans les années 1980 (Paillet 2007:176). Ce service est au centre du questionnement: il s’agit de maintenir en vie un bébé en très mauvaise santé, souvent suite à une naissance prématurée, tout en compromettant le moins possible sa vie future. La médecine moderne—qui aurait tendance à réanimer toujours plus tôt des cas toujours plus graves, avec plus de risques de séquelles pour l’enfant—se retrouve confrontée à la résistance de certains praticiens, des parents, et du Comité Consultatif National d’Éthique (CCNE) (Paillet 2007). C’est donc autour des questions « Jusqu’où aller ? » et « Qui réanimer? » que se construisent les discussions des spécialistes, mettant à jour les notions de tri médical et de pouvoir décisionnel. Tout au long de cet article, j’utiliserai le terme morale pour me référer aux règles de conduites liée à un sens du bien et du mal présent dans chaque membre d’une société et modelés en partie par celle-ci, dans ce cas précis la société occidentale, et le terme éthique pour désigner le domaine philosophique qui appréhende, théorise et applique les fondements de cette morale.

La réanimation néonatale est encadrée par quelques textes de loi qui se chargent de trancher ces débats. En France, les médecins se doivent de prendre en charge un enfant qui naît à partir de 24 à 26 semaines d’aménorrhée (un enfant est considéré comme prématuré lorsqu’il naît à moins de 37 semaines de gestation). Au Japon, l’obligation de tenter de sauver un enfant est placée à 22 semaines d’aménorrhée alors qu’en Chine, elle n’est qu’à 28 semaines (Antje Christ 2014). On voit ici une ébauche du rapport de chaque pays avec la natalité. Avant ces échéances, la loi ne préconise aucune action, il en va de la décision de l’équipe médicale. Au-delà de ces questions, la réanimation néonatale est en grande partie aux mains de la morale des médecins, dictée par celle de la société. Comme dans beaucoup de pays occidentaux, l’euthanasie—comprise comme le fait de provoquer la mort d’un patient atteint d’une maladie incurable dans le but d’abréger ses souffrances—est interdite en France comme au Canada (Butler et al. 2013); en ce qui concerne la néonatologie, l’avis n°65 du CCNE laisse entendre que si les lésions cérébrales sont trop importantes et compromettent gravement la vie future d’un enfant devenu autonome (autonomie respiratoire), il serait légitime de considérer l’arrêt des traitements (Gisquet 2008: 17). L’arrêt des soins pour un enfant autonome est encore assez peu pratiqué et il est précédé de nombreuses discussions d’équipe.

Dans ces décisions graves et irréversibles, comment savoir qui doit décider? La discussion devrait-elle réunir parents et équipe médicale ou laisser le choix aux experts, qui prennent en compte chaque paramètre pour estimer les chances de l’enfant et la qualité potentielle de sa vie future ? Ces questionnements sont au cœur de la politique des hôpitaux: alors que certains choisissent de donner aux parents un pouvoir décisionnel, une tendance générale aux Etats Unis, d’autres préfèrent les écarter, invoquant les répercussions morales et psychologiques de telles décisions (Antje Christ 2014).

Ces problématiques éthiques soulevées dans de tels cas—concernant la vie future de l’enfant, l’obligation morale du personnel médical et la responsabilité décisionnelle— témoignent d’une certaine pratique de la médecine qui s’exerce dans des sociétés occidentales ayant pour ambition de dominer la nature.

Corps naturel et corps social

La place de la nature en question

Pierre Erny décrit l’enfant comme « l’homme à l’état de nature » (1988:52), il assure le passage entre la nature, la naissance biologique d’un corps, à celui de la culture, la naissance sociale et la réception des diverses marques sociales.

Françoise Loux, dans Le jeune enfant et son corps dans la médecine traditionnelle, fait écho au siècle dernier où la maladie infantile était « le mal obligatoire » tellement elle était courante (1978:240). On avait alors recours à l’herboristerie ou aux amulettes pour la guérir. Chaque action sur le corps d’un nouveau-né est une action sur un environnement et témoigne d’une interprétation particulière de celui-ci. La réanimation néonatale serait donc une façon de donner du sens à ce qui nous échappe: la nature et ses aléas. C’est une partie de l’analyse que donne Françoise de Barbot: elle affirme que les progrès technologiques et médicaux nous confèrent une illusion de maîtrise de la nature (1993:157).

On peut alors évoquer les théories anthropologiques du matérialisme culturel qui attribuent à chaque phénomène naturel une réponse sociale. Ainsi, les infanticides rituels africains d’enfants jugés « anormaux » seraient une réponse à la trop grande densité de population face aux ressources naturelles (Descola 2011). Si ces théories ont été critiquées, on peut tenter d’appliquer ce type de raisonnement à la politique chinoise de l’enfant unique, en réaction à l’extrême augmentation de la population; aujourd’hui, la Chine ne sauve pas d’enfants nés avant 28 semaines d’aménorrhée (Antje Christ 2014). On peut rapprocher cette réponse de la contraception, et notamment de l’analyse qu’en fait D.H Meadows en 1972 dans un ouvrage collectif intitulé Limits to Growth. Ce dernier prédisait un si fort accroissement de la population qu’il mènerait à une perte de contrôle et donc à des mesures de l’Etat pour restreindre la natalité. Elle augure ainsi la notion de « bio-pouvoir » initiée par Michel Foucault en 1976 dans son ouvrage La volonté de savoir. Le « bio-pouvoir » se réfère au pouvoir de l’autorité (le souverain, le gouvernement puis les institutions) sur la vie ou la mort des individus. Il est passé de « faire mourir et laisser vivre », dans les systèmes monarchiques et féodaux, à « faire vivre et laisser mourir » dans nos sociétés contemporaines (Rose et Rabinow 2006). Ainsi, le pouvoir s’exprime par la prise en charge de la vie et non plus par la menace de mort. Les interventions et forces régulatrices que le pouvoir met en place permettent un plus large contrôle de la population. La démographie est une science nouvelle, liée à l’émergence du capitalisme qui est devenue vectrice de « bio-pouvoir » par sa volonté de restreindre le corps humain à des statistiques et de contrôler son nombre (Foucault 1976:184).  On retrouve cette pensée au cœur de la médecine moderne et de la réanimation en générale; l’enjeu politique intervient dans le dialogue entre nature et technique et le transforme en définissant le règne du « normal ».

Quelle norme biologique est présente dans la pratique de la réanimation? Est-il « normal » de réanimer un patient qui présente tous les signes de la mort physique ? Georges Canguilhem est un des grands philosophes qui se sont interrogés autour de la notion de « norme biologique ». Pour lui « le normal biologique n’est révélé que par les infractions à la norme » (Canguilhem 1966:72), ce sont donc les experts qui construisent une « norme » en reformulant les conditions des patients; la guérison tend à rétablir cette norme en se rapprochant d’un état habituel et idéal. Plus loin dans son ouvrage, Le normal et le pathologique, la sélection naturelle de Darwin est abordée. On peut se demander comment adapter cette idée d’une lutte de l’être humain face à la nature lorsque l’on accompagne les patients dans chaque difficulté pathologique qu’ils rencontrent. La médecine moderne s’est-elle attachée à déjouer ce principe? Aujourd’hui, avoir un génotype « inférieur » ou « supérieur », selon les mots de l’auteur George Guille-Escuret, n’est plus le facteur principal qui altérera notre survie (1989:31). La nature comme l’a décrite Darwin a perdu son pouvoir à l’heure de la technologie médicale.

« Dans les sociétés de l’ultra modernité, la nature n’est plus un ordre » (2003:241), selon Danielle Hervieu Léger, elle est avant tout l’ensemble des façons de percevoir notre environnement  et en cela, on peut affirmer qu’elles sont construites socialement.

Le corps comme modelage social

Le corps est une composante essentielle de la société: il est présent partout où il y a des Hommes, il est au centre de questionnements fondamentaux et sa conception est dictée par des représentations sociales. La pensée du corps de l’enfant varie entre les différentes cultures. Par exemple, les Bantous, population présente majoritairement en Afrique du Sud, considèrent que l’enfant ne fait pas partie du monde tant qu’il n’est pas né socialement, ce qui correspond la plupart du temps à l’apparition des premières dents. Avant ce passage, il est « enfant eau », il n’a pas de nom, pas d’identité sociale et son âme peut décider de retourner dans l’eau, son milieu d’origine, et de faire mourir le corps de l’enfant sans que cela déchaîne les émotions de la famille (Erny 1988). Un autre exemple de cette diversité conceptuelle pourrait être les Lobi, peuple du Burkina Faso, où l’enfant est habité par un « tuh », soit un double vital qui s’exprime notamment par la respiration ou esprit mortel. Les réactions particulières de l’enfant sont attribuées au tuh : si l’enfant pleure trop souvent ou si sa santé est aléatoire, cela signifie que son tuh veut quitter le monde des vivants et retourner de l’autre côté du fleuve, là d’où il vient, en faisant mourir le corps qui l’abrite (Cros 1990).

La vérité du corps, et plus particulièrement du corps malade, naît avec le diagnostic. L’adhésion au discours du thérapeute est présente tant dans la médecine moderne que dans la médecine traditionnelle (Le Breton 2011). La vérité qu’elles construisent est au cœur de la représentation du corps; par leurs diagnostiques différents, elles ne font pas appel à la même réalité. En ce qui concerne la médecine moderne, Foucault, en suivant les arguments de Canguilhem, affirme que le critère du normal est construit et défini par l’expérience de la clinique. Depuis l’époque des Lumières, les développements de la médecine l’ont modelée de telle sorte que sa vérité réside dans un regard unique, celui des experts, dont la seule clarté est tenue pour véridique et objective (Foucault 1963).

Les différentes représentations du corps découlent d’un processus historique, géographique et dynamique qui tend à donner du sens à ce qui nous échappe, à l’instar de beaucoup d’autres phénomènes sociaux. Les divers modèles d’interprétation du corps et de la maladie sont autant de façon d’agir sur son environnement. La réalité du corps est symbolique et cette symbolique sociale est le socle de l’action (Le Breton 2011).

Le corps au cœur des soins

Le primat du résultat : la vie

Dans les chaînons de la réanimation, le premier et certainement celui qui prévaut à bien des égards (moral, éthique, médical), est celui du maintien en vie. Pierre Valette nous expose ainsi l’éthique de la médecine moderne: « tu peux donc tu dois » (2013 : 217). Dès que le praticien a la capacité d’agir contre la mort il doit le faire immédiatement, avant toute considération, sous peine d’être accusé de négligence. La mécanique de la réanimation passe avant toute chose, et plus particulièrement, avant de penser aux conséquences neurologiques de nos actes sur le patient. Michel Dehan et Marie-Antoinette Bouguin parlent d’ « obligation morale » des médecins de porter assistance à tous puis, dans un deuxième temps, d’interrompre les traitements si l’avenir n’est pas envisageable. Le temps du diagnostic est appelé la « réanimation d’attente », sans autre but que de garder le patient en vie et sans promesse d’une rémission. Face à la législation et à l’opinion publique, les médecins ne peuvent « accepter la mort qu’en ultime recours » (Dehan et Bouguin 1993:201)

Ces mécanismes de réanimation, toujours plus efficaces, sont diverses façons de contourner la mort: la prise en charge médicale et les nouveaux outils mis en place ont multiplié les chances de survie; aujourd’hui, l’état « de mort apparente », qui correspond à un coma très profond avec le ralentissement de toutes les fonctions vitales, est réversible (Gisquet 2008).

Dans l’urgence où il faut tout faire pour que l’enfant ne meurt pas, quelles limites peut-on poser pour ne pas tomber dans de « l’acharnement thérapeutique »? La bioéthique s’attache à répondre à ce type de questions délicates. Dans le service de réanimation néonatale, la qualité de la vie future de l’enfant est rapidement compromise car les terminaisons nerveuses sont encore fragiles et en développement : si le cerveau ne reçoit plus d’oxygène, ces connexions ne peuvent être achevées. On ne peut donc « panser » le corps de l’enfant sans prendre en compte les séquelles laissées par les méthodes de réanimation. Dans certains cas, Myriam Révault d’Allonnes et Adèle Van Reeth parlent « d’obstination déraisonnée » (2014); la loi Leonetti du 22 avril 2005 la définit comme telle : « La poursuite des traitements actifs alors que, en l’état actuel de la médecine, ils apparaissent inutiles ou encore que leurs bénéfices, en termes de qualité de vie ou de confort, est disproportionné par rapport aux risques, aux désagréments, à la douleur ou la souffrance morale qu’ils génèrent ». Alors, comment ne pas tomber dans une réanimation extrême où la vie en tant que réalité biologique prime sur la vie sociale et psychologique de l’enfant ?

L’enjeu de cette médecine technique serait alors d’arriver à assurer la survie de l’enfant et d’en estimer la qualité, de s’obstiner sans s’acharner (Paillet 2007:81)

Le corps déshumanisé

La médecine moderne, et spécialement les services de réanimation, fourmillent de tuyaux, fils, défibrillateurs, ordinateurs, machines, et toute une panoplie d’objets techniques pouvant agir de façon quasi automatique sur le corps du malade. Au Japon, l’enfant né prématurément est immédiatement relié à un logiciel qui calcule et analyse sans cesse les variations dans le corps du bébé (Antje Christ 2014). Pour David Le Breton, cet appareillage du corps participe au processus de déshumanisation de la médecine moderne. La médecine telle que nous la pratiquons aurait tendance à oublier le sujet en séparant l’homme des mécanismes biologiques de son corps. Le corps devient un « puzzle »: on choisit d’agir sur tel ou tel organes ou zones affectées comme si ils étaient indépendants du reste du corps (2011:293). Le diagnostic est perçu comme une suite de paramètres qui décident de la survie ou non de la personne. La médecine traite ici de « la machine humaine »: le malade est traité tel une mécanique et son corps est fragmenté (2011:15). On évoque parfois des « enfants cassés » à leur sortie de l’hôpital, abîmés tels des objets par une réanimation soutenue (Paillet 2007:35)

Dans sa « monographie du service A », un service de néonatologie d’un hôpital Français, Elsa Gisquet retranscrit le rapport d’un médecin sur un bébé en réanimation néonatale ; le rapport présente les variations de l’état de l’enfant en utilisant des termes techniques tels que « EEG », « ETF », « MMH », « HIV de grade IV », divers chiffres qualifiés tantôt de « normaux » ou de « denses ». La standardisation des examens participe à la standardisation des corps, traités par les mêmes procédés, les mêmes gestes (2008:42).

La répétition des gestes de réanimation place à leur tour les médecins dans une mécanique pouvant être associée à celle d’une machine (Le Breton 2011). La médecine contemporaine transforme le patient en médium pour exercer sa technique ; Didier Sicard, président du CCNE, parle de « médecine ivre de technologie » (cité par Hennezel 2014:87). Claude Raisky va jusqu’à comparer la médecine moderne aux mécanismes du travail et lui applique les notions de rendement et d’instrumentalisation (2003).

Le débat qui se déroule dans ces services, celui de la vie ou la mort d’un enfant, ne peut être appréhendé de cette manière; même si on entend dans les discours du personnel de santé une certaine prise de recul face aux situations et aux prises de décision extrêmement difficile, ceux-ci se doivent de prendre en compte l’humanité de l’enfant et la situation de ses proches.

Rétablir une humanité

La reconnaissance du statut d’être humain à un nouveau-né n’est pas évidente et n’est énoncée clairement que depuis quelques décennies. L’enfant peut bénéficier désormais des droits reconnus pour tous, comme celui d’être soigné; avant, l’équipe médicale pouvait décider de ne pas donner de chances à un enfant et de ne pas le réanimer (Le Grand Sébille et al. 1998)

L’enfant amené en service de réanimation néonatale n’est évidemment pas en mesure de prendre des décisions ni d’exprimer son avis. On serait donc amenés à considérer les parents comme garants de l’humanité de leur enfant. Leur place peut être essentielle auprès de l’enfant pour lui assurer un lien avec le monde extérieur et ne pas le priver de toute relation. L’hôpital de Cologne, en Allemagne, a montré que la présence des parents et surtout le contact physique avec la mère participaient efficacement au développement cérébral de l’enfant prématuré. La symbiose que forment l’enfant et la mère dans une position qu’ils appellent la position « kangourou » (l’enfant repose sur la poitrine de la mère) permet également de l’apaiser et de favoriser le sommeil, ce qui lui permet ensuite de prendre du poids plus rapidement (Antje Christ 2014). Cette présence auprès de l’enfant est également assurée par les infirmières. Gisquet oppose la technique des médecins « seniors », qui se concentrent sur le développement biologique et enchaînent les accouchements, à l’humanité véhiculée par les infirmières qui sont chargées d’accompagner les patients dans leur guérison (2008:42). Ces dernières prennent le temps de parler, toucher, porter l’enfant ; elles ne se concentrent pas seulement sur les caractéristiques biologiques du nouveau-né mais surtout sur ces réactions, son agitation, ses pleurs et présentent tous ces aspects dans leur rapport écrit quotidien, que les médecins avouent ne pas regarder souvent (2008).

L’importance de la mise en place d’une relation au monde extérieur dans le développement cérébral du nourrisson a été prouvée par la conduite d’études scientifiques. Certains hôpitaux, comme ceux de Cologne et de Zurich, intègrent désormais la pratique de la musicologie dans le traitement des bébés prématurés. Ils incitent également les parents à rester plusieurs heures par jour auprès de leur enfant et favorisent le contact physique. Pour les deux hôpitaux, ces pratiques augmentent rapidement la création des terminaisons nerveuses qui n’ont pas pu se développer dans le ventre de la mère, et limitent ainsi les séquelles cérébrales ultérieures (Antje Christ 2014).

On voit ici les efforts mis en place par l’équipe médicale pour ne pas limiter le corps d’un enfant à une pathologie, pour reprendre le terme de Canguilhem, qu’il faudrait soigner mais pour l’appréhender dans un ensemble qui rétablit alors l’humanité de ce corps auquel on fait face.


Par sa volonté de déjouer la mort et la maladie, la médecine moderne s’inscrit dans un processus d’émancipation d’avec la nature, lui-même poussé par des représentations socialement construites qui considèrent la mort comme la fin de la vie. Ces perceptions de la nature sont vectrices de sens et matrices de l’action de la médecine sur un corps donné et qualifié de « malade ». L’exemple de la réanimation néonatale donne à observer ces différents facteurs qui contribuent à moduler l’idée que nous nous faisons du corps, interrogeant notre morale d’une part et notre course contre la mort de l’autre. La réanimation néonatale invoque de multiples questionnements autour des notions de décision, de responsabilité et d’humanité. Comparer nos façons de faire avec celles d’autres cultures, distantes dans le temps ou dans l’espace, permet une prise de distance d’avec les sentiments puissants impliqués dans cette problématique difficile. Les progrès biologiques de la médecine ont contribué à déplacer l’angoisse néonatale de l’incertitude de la survie de l’enfant à la mise en péril de la qualité de sa vie future au profit de l’assurance de sa survie. Ils soulèvent ainsi de nombreux problèmes éthiques qui prennent leur source dans une interrogation majeure et dont la légitimité peut-elle même être questionnée : quelle vie vaut la peine d’être vécue? 

Works Cited

Butler, Martha, Marlisa Tiedemann, Julia Nicol, and Dominique Valiquet. 2013. « L’Euthanasie et l’Aide au Suicide au Canada ». Ottawa : Bibliothèque du Parlement. Ressource éléctronique,, consultée le 26 février 2016.

Bloch, Maurice. 1993. « La mort et la conception de la personne » In Terrain, vol 20, Pp. 7-20.

Canguilhem, Georges. 1978. The Normal and the Pathological. Carolyn R. Fawcett, trans. Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company.

Cros, Michèle. 1990. Anthropologie du sang en Afrique. Paris: l’Harmattan.

De Barbot, Françoise. 1993. « Culture et dialogue avec les familles d’enfant porteurs d’un handicap grave moteur » In Cook Jon et Domergue Jean-Paul (dir) L’enfant malade et le monde médical. Paris: Syros, Pp. 151-168

Dehan, Michel and Marie-Antoinette Bouguin. 1993. « Existe-t-il un contrat de soin en réanimation néonatale ? » In Cook Jon et Domergue Jean-Paul (dir) L’enfant malade et le monde médical. Paris: Syros, Pp. 196-212.

De Hennezel, Marie. 2004. Le souci de l’autre. Paris : Editions Robert Laffont.

Descola, Philippe. 2011. L’écologie des autres. L’anthropologie et la question de la nature. Paris: Éditions Quae.

Erny, Pierre. 1988. Les premiers pas dans la vie de l’enfant d’Afrique noire. Paris: l’Harmattan.

Ezémbé, Ferdinand. 2003. L’enfant africains et ses univers. Paris: Éditions Karthala.

Foucault, Michel. 1976. Histoire de la Sexualité 1. La volonté de Savoir. Paris: Gallimard.

Gisquet, Elsa. 2008. Vie et mort en réanimation néonatale. Paris: L’Harmattan.

Guille-Escuret, Georges. 1989. Les sociétés et leurs natures. Paris: Armand Colin.

Hervieu-Léger, Danièle. 2003. Catholicisme, la fin d’un monde. Paris: Bayard.

Le Breton, David. 2011. Anthropologie du corps et modernité. Second Edition (1990) Paris: PUF.

Le Grand-Sébille, Catherine, Marie France Morel, and Françoise Zonabend. 1998. Le fœtus, le nourrisson et la mort. Paris: L’Harmattan.

Loux, Françoise. 1978. Le jeune enfant et son corps dans la médecine traditionnelle. Paris: Flammarion.

Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. 1972. Limits to Growth. New York: New American Library.

Paillet, Anne. 2007. Sauver la vie, donner la mort. Paris: La dispute.

Raisky, Claude (dir). 2003. Les valeurs du corps dans la société contemporaine. Paris: Educagir.

Revault d’Allonnes, Myriam and Adèle Van Reeth. 2014. L’obstination. Paris: Plon.

Rose, Nikolas and Paul Rabinow. 2006. « Le bio-pouvoir aujourd’hui » In BioSocieties. Keck Frédéric, Trans. Vol. 1, Pp 195-217.

Valette, Pierre. 2013. Éthique de l’urgence, urgence de l’éthique. Paris: PUF.

Wulf, Cristoph. 2013. Anthropologie de l’Homme mondialisé : histoire et concepts. Paris: CNRS éditions.

Documentary film
Antje Christ, dir. 2014 Grands prématurés : la survie à quel prix ? 52 min. Allemagne. Diffusé le 12 septembre 2014 à 22h25  Arte.

End Notes

[1-4]. My translations.

[5]. Directed by the Société Française des Soins Palliatifs et de l’Accompagnement.

[6-16]. My translations.

A Guide for Graduate Students: barriers to conducting qualitative research among vulnerable groups

by Priscilla Medeiros
PhD Candidate | McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada


This paper will explore the challenges graduate students may encounter when working with socially vulnerable groups in the field. It is written from the perspective of a current graduate student and draws on her ethnographic experiences in Nairobi Province, Kenya, to provide some modest advice to other researchers. Particular attention is paid to some of the more common challenges students may encounter in the field working with vulnerable groups such as research design, ethical considerations, and participant recruitment and retention. This article concludes with a framework through which to study these groups.

Key words: anthropology, social sciences, vulnerable, vulnerable populations, conceptual model

Publication Information
Volume 3, Issue 1 (2017)

Social science disciplines including but not limited to anthropology, sociology, health studies, and social work often work with vulnerable groups in an attempt to reduce health disparities. Conducting studies involving vulnerable groups has traditionally been confined to factors such as low socioeconomic status or individuals with poor psychological, physical, or social health (Flaskerud and Winslow 1998). Current approaches to classifying vulnerable groups fail to consider the social dimensions of vulnerability that affect individuals such as stressors like abuse and social exclusion (Nyamathi et al. 2007). Since the 1980s, there has been a growing body of literature in the social sciences on the concept of vulnerability in an attempt to create a conceptual framework for defining this term (Brooks 2003; Nichiata et al. 2008). Anthropology continues to be underrepresented in the literature pertaining to the critical discussion of vulnerable groups (Fluehr-Lobban 2013; Hedican 2016). Why is the concept of vulnerability under-studied in the anthropological literature and what is the future direction of anthropology in relation to this topic?

This paper will explore the challenges graduate students may encounter when working with socially vulnerable groups, and in doing so, will contribute to a more nuanced definition of the concept of vulnerability and provide a framework through which to study these groups. The article does not exhaust all the challenges a student may encounter in the field, but illustrates the more common barriers to conducting research involving vulnerable groups. Some of the examples in this paper draw on my experiences working with women living with HIV and AIDS in Nairobi Province, Kenya, during my master’s research. I employ Flaskerud and Winslow’s (1998) vulnerable populations conceptual model (VPCM) to examine the challenges researchers encounter in the process of data collection and to explore how these challenges affect research design, participant recruitment, and retention. The VPCM assesses the relation between resource availability and relative risk to an individual’s health status (Flaskerud and Winslow 1998). Further explanation of this model can be found in the previously cited article. This paper will argue that the challenges encountered by qualitative researchers studying vulnerable groups are overcome by collaborative efforts and ongoing dialogue between researchers and the participants involved in the study.

Defining vulnerability as a concept in the social sciences

There are many working definitions for the term vulnerability, but the more common frameworks within the social sciences revolve around the intersection of spaces of vulnerability (Delore and Hubert 2000), the concept of vulnerability (Rogers 1997), a theory of reasoned action (Jemmott and Jemmott 1991) and the common sense model of illness danger (Leventhal et al. 1980). These approaches all define vulnerable groups similarly according to their social status, family structure, marital status, and human capital. Defining vulnerable groups as people who are less fortunate fails to address the broader macro level factors that place an individual at an increased level of risk or vulnerability in a given society. According to Sengupta et al.,

[these frameworks are] too narrow and too broad in scope; too narrow because it does not take into account other factors that lead to vulnerability … and too broad because some individuals … are not vulnerable in certain types of research. (2010:1313)

Alternatively, Flaskerud and Winslow (1998) use VPCM as a population-based framework to explain adverse outcomes like premature mortality, comparative morbidity, and diminished quality of life. This conceptual framework remains relevant to current research related to health because it expands on the knowledge and skills relevant to the care of vulnerable populations.

Flaskerud and Winslow’s (1998) model is composed of three concepts: resource availability, relative risk, and health status. Resource availability is conceptualized as the availability of socioeconomic and environmental resources (i.e. human capital and social status) for the assessment of vulnerability to health disparities (Nyamathi et al. 2007). A lack of resources, such as social connectedness, unemployment, and the inability to access healthcare services, leads to an increased relative risk (Flaskerud and Winslow 1998). Relative risk refers to the vulnerability of different groups to various health disparities resulting from behavioural or lifestyle practices and biological susceptibility (Nyamathi et al. 2007). For example, rising rates of HIV infection among women globally is dependent on attitudes toward sex and sexual health or contraceptive responsibility that will influence an individual’s underestimation or overestimation of infection (Akwara et al. 2003). A lack of resources will also increase relative risk.

During my master’s fieldwork in Nairobi Province, Kenya, I observed the cultural resistance to sexual education for adolescents. Sex and sexuality issues remain taboo and are only discussed among peers. Cultural silence about sexual health was encouraging sexual curiosity, experimentation, and promiscuity among adolescents, especially men. As a researcher at a religious health facility in rural Kenya, access to basic healthcare is limited and the absence of sexual health education focusing on the various methods of contraception and safe sex activities, and the relative unavailability of contraceptives has led to rising rates of negative health outcomes like sexually transmitted infections. Finally, health status of a community correlates to patterns of increased morbidity and premature mortality in various population groups, which is informed by an individual’s age and gender (Nyamathi et al. 2007). The existence of interrelationships among resource availability, relative risk, and health status in the VPCM highlights the complexity towards discerning who is vulnerable within each population. Flaskerud and Winslow’s (1998) approach to studying vulnerable groups broadens analysis beyond more traditional methods of disease studies such as participant observation and interviewing. The community of study is also involved in the research design to better understand the experiences of vulnerable groups.

Using a gendered perspective to study vulnerable groups

Inclusion of gender-based analysis in the study of vulnerability is beneficial to understanding the complex needs and sociocultural realities of groups recognized as vulnerable populations, including women and children. Gender-based analysis aims to understand the interrelationships that exist among variables and identifiers such as age, culture, ethnicity, race and sexuality (Prairie Women’s Health Center of Excellence 2010). According to a number of scholars applying the health belief model (HBM) (Flaskerud and Winslow 1998; Rawlett 2011; Odhiambo 2012), gender is also an important factor in the study of vulnerable populations. The HBM framework is a psychological model that seeks to explain health behaviors by studying attitudes and beliefs of individuals. This analytical process suggests that gendered experiences of health disparities are different from one individual to another and requires a closer examination of the literature to implement effective strategies. In Nairobi Province, Kenya, I observed the gender roles ascribed to femaleness not only reinforce gender inequality, but also place women at an increased risk for the transmission of sexually transmitted infections. The use of condoms, for instance, was viewed as inappropriate in a marriage because women were expected to practice sexual monogamy.

Documenting growing inequalities using the gender-based analysis approach assists researchers to address the unmet needs of vulnerable groups, especially women (Bayoumi et al. 2011). For example, the Project for an Ontario Women’s Health Evidence Based Report (POWER) focuses on a vulnerable population with the gender-based approach to assess women’s health status in Ontario (Shiller and Bierman 2009). This study builds on previous women’s health research to understand how health disparities are changing for women (Shiller and Bierman 2009). The authors of this report have provided a comprehensive examination of the health inequalities experienced by women in Ontario. . It was clear in my own fieldwork that women’s health disparities are always health inequalities. However, the lack of consideration for cultural orientation in this study poses a challenge to assess this topic from a holistic perspective. This is also a practical barrier to performing meaningful research in the social sciences.

Ethical considerations for studying a vulnerable group

Graduate students in the social sciences face a number of ethical challenges when conducting research with vulnerable groups including providing informed consent, maintaining confidentiality and privacy of collected data, and ensuring research ethics principles are upheld throughout the study. In spite of the development of ethical guidelines and protocols, such as review boards to ensure the protection of participant autonomy during research studies, maintaining ethical guidelines requires constant negotiation with mentors or supervisory committees to resolve any dilemmas encountered during the project.

Research ethics boards

The National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research in the United States published the Belmont Report in 1979.[1] This report is still relevant and serves as the basis of scientific codes of conduct in Canada that review boards use to evaluate the integrity of research involving any human participant (Sutton et al. 2003). Ethical principles identified in the report include respect for autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice. Respect for autonomy refers to the notion that a respondent’s participation is voluntary and can be withdrawn at any point during the study (Allen 2002). Participants must be informed of the purpose of the study, potential risks, forms of information dissemination, and data collection processes. Beneficence refers to the outcomes respondents perceive will occur resulting from participation in the study (Allen 2002). Non-maleficence relates to the efforts of the researcher to minimize participation risks. This includes the avoidance of methodologies, research settings, and data analysis techniques that place respondents at risk for negative psychological and emotional consequences (Allen 2002). Justice refers to the responsibility of the researcher to protect the confidentiality, privacy, and integrity of the research process (Allen 2002). These principles have provided a framework for research ethics boards in addition to the Tri-Council (CIHR, NSERC, SSHRC) Policy Statement to create codes of professional ethics that evaluate the integrity of proposed studies.

In the context of HIV and AIDS research, ethics of data collection must also consider the Greater Involvement of People Living with HIV and AIDS (GIPA) principle. The GIPA report was developed in 1994 in an attempt to provide professional codes of ethics that pertain to maintaining the integrity of research conducted among people living with this disease (UNAIDS 2010). Although other guiding principles have been established to protect participants’ autonomy, people living with HIV and AIDS endure a number of vulnerabilities such as stigmatization, which are not addressed by current protocols. The GIPA promotes the involvement of people living with HIV and AIDS in the decision-making processes of projects, similar to the methodological approach of participatory action research, in an attempt to address barriers to performing meaningful research with vulnerable groups (UNAIDS 2010). This aim is absent in previous guiding ethical principles like the Health Canada’s Ethics Review Board.

Permission from community agencies is needed in some instances to gain access to respondents despite obtaining ethics board approval. Review board guidelines for health and social care research require standardization to account for the ethics in data collection in community-based research (CBR) (Franklin et al. 2012). Current research ethics boards assess the ethical acceptability of a research from the institution’s standpoint, which has little to contribute to the people or communities under study. This approach fails to consider GIPA and CBR principles (Flicker et al. 2007). Flicker and colleagues (2007) conducted a content analysis of ethical guidelines for 30 academic institutions across the United States and Canada. Some of the institutions included Harvard School of Public Health, the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Toronto. Findings from this study, suggest that current protocols are concerned with sample sizes, funding resources, recruitment strategies and privacy of collected data. According to Flicker et al.,

No regard was given to the potential harm caused by recruiting a large number of individuals or in asking them to participate in a study…None asked about procedures for terminating a study or vetoing publication based on community concerns…none were designed with the intent that CBPR [or community-based research] protocols have flexible timelines because of their process-oriented nature. (2007:486)

To standardize the review of research projects, some studies suggest that research ethics boards require sensitivity training on the principles of community based research (CBR) and that the related documentation be revised to include discussions about the roles of the researcher, perceived community risks and decision-making processes (Flicker et al. 2007; Khanlou and Peter 2004). The CBR approach should be included in the standardization of ethical guidelines that health-related researchers follow while working with vulnerable groups. Awareness of the ethical guidelines for conducting research with human participants assists in the development of informed consent documentation. Obtaining informed consent from respondents presents a particularly significant challenge for researchers conducting studies with vulnerable populations.

Researchers are responsible for obtaining, documenting, and understanding that the respondent’s participation is voluntary (Singer and Easton 2006; Chotiga et al. 2010). Obtaining informed consent is a concern when conducting studies that focus on vulnerable populations, especially among those with mental disorders or substance abuse problems. Informed consent is an ongoing process and is maintained by dialogue with respondents (Hutchinson et al. 1994). Levels of low literacy and comprehension pose a challenge for researchers to ensure that respondents are aware of the objectives of the study (Bayoumi and Hwang 2002). Alternative protocols are required such as the inclusion of professional translators and encouraging participants to express any concerns throughout the study, especially related to the perceived benefits and risks associated with involvement in the study. This allows researchers to address individual concerns related to the integrity of the study (Wendler and Grady 2008; Chotiga et al. 2010). According to one study, “the traditional method of seeking informed consent does not allow for consideration of the developmental nature of qualitative inquiry and the need for process consent” (James and Platzer 1999:74). Current ethical guidelines pertaining to informed consent do not address the potential for harm that may occur to participants throughout the data collection process such as frustration and anxiety. It is the researcher’s responsibility to employ the notion of informed consent as a process to protect the autonomy and integrity of participants (James and Platzer 1999).

During my fieldwork experience in Nairobi Province, it became clear to me that the existence of cultural taboos and societal stigmatizations associated with the HIV infection deterred women from informing their sexual partners about my study in the community. Some of the women in my study obtained permission from their partners before consenting to becoming involved in my study but soon afterwards withdrew after reporting their partners’ discontent with the disclosure of information about their private lives. Emphasis of voluntary participation and withdrawal from the study were beneficial for the wellbeing of the participants and maintaining my rapport with the community.

Anthropologists and other social scientists can contribute to resolving ethical dilemmas related to working with vulnerable populations. Existing knowledge on anthropologists’ experiences working with vulnerable groups can be used to address ethical dilemmas encountered in the fieldwork setting. Despite the existence of protocols to prevent or address ethical barriers, researchers also face a number of practical challenges during the data collection process.

Practical barriers to conducting work with vulnerable groups

The nature of being a vulnerable participant has been well documented in the literature (Flaskerud and Winslow 1998; Guelder et al. 2012; Seidman 2013). Few academic publications discuss the vulnerabilities researchers, especially graduate students, encounter in the field while collecting data (Gregory et al. 1997; Paterson et al. 1999; McCosker et al. 2001). Researchers involved in qualitative research with vulnerable populations experience a number of practical barriers in the field, including building rapport with potential participants and addressing their own emotions or distress related to the undertaking of sensitive topics.

Establishing a researcher-participant relationship

A lack of trust between potential participants and researchers resulting from historical experiences of exploitation poses many challenges to data collection processes among vulnerable groups. Dickson-Swift et al. (2007) suggests that reciprocity of disclosure assists researchers in establishing rapport with individuals involved in the study. Reciprocity in this context refers to the sharing of narratives between researcher and participants to reduce feelings of mistrust and lessen the hierarchical nature of the research process. Engaging in reciprocal disclosure may lead to participatory action such as the dissemination of findings in the form of a community-based report.

Researchers must be aware of how their identity disclosure has a strong influence on the study’s process (Dickson-Swift et al. 2007). Although a researcher should fully disclose their identity in the fieldwork setting, lecture classes and supervisory committees do not often discuss the appropriate timing for disclosure to potential participants. During fieldwork in Nairobi Province, immediate disclosure of my identity as a qualitative researcher was met with fear and avoidance in the community. Many participants were uncertain of my role in their community as a social scientist in contrast to a nurse or doctor. Even after six months of fieldwork in a number of rural communities in Nairobi Province and participating in Kenyan customs, building trust and gaining access to the research field was difficult. The proper time to disclose a researcher’s identity should be made on a case by case basis in consultation with a supervisory committee to avoid jeopardizing the potential for establishing rapport with community members or follow up research.

When working with vulnerable groups, collaborating with community members or peer-to-peer recruiters is advantageous in assisting with recruitment. This established relationship creates a sense of trust between both groups and helps graduate researchers overcome many of the practical and methodological barriers other disciplines encounter when studying the topic of vulnerability. There is potential for conflict between the dual roles of a community member serving as both peer recruiter and potential participant. Peer-to-peer recruiters attempting to fulfill the role of a community member while assisting with the study reinforce hierarchal power relations in the field, which may influence participants’ decisions to become involved in the study. For instance, obtaining informed consent should be free of undue influence, including the professional nature of the researcher. Anthropologists and researchers from other disciplines studying topics in the clinical setting may encounter similar experiences in the field. A valuable lesson that I learned in conducting fieldwork in Kenya was to use my supervisory meetings to discuss and address practical barriers as they were encountered in the field.

Vulnerable researchers in the field

In the course of conducting studies among vulnerable groups, researchers can experience harm to their emotional wellbeing (Nordentoft and Kappel 2011). Feelings of vulnerability for researchers often emerge after conducting a number of interviews focused on sensitive topics and dealing with issues related to data analysis. These feelings of emotional distress may negatively affect data collection processes and other aspects of participants’ personal lives (Dickson-Swift et al. 2007). Nordentoft and Kappel (2011) document the vulnerabilities they encountered as researchers while conducting ethnographic research in the clinical setting. They argue that personal involvement with subjects or engaging in the act of sharing stories with participants is a barrier throughout the data collection process, which may produce emotional, psychological and social injury. One researcher documents the nature of their emotional state after the data collection process:

I would often become choked with emotions during tearful interviews. These same emotional responses were repeated numerous times in the course of reviewing and transcribing the tapes and analyzing the data. I experienced anger, powerlessness, which resulted in sleep disorders and other somatic complaints that were similar to those voiced by informants. (Dunn 1991:390)

Maintaining professional relationships with gatekeepers (informants or peer-to-peer researchers) and participants can influence the outcome of the research study. To protect the integrity of the study, it sometimes is important for the researcher to maintain their identity as an outsider to reduce bias in the research as much as possible (Ramos 1989; Dickson-Swift et al. 2007; Nordentoft and Kappel 2011). To ensure that these emotional responses do not solely influence the interpretation of qualitative data, some researchers suggest seeking social support from colleagues or mentors, participating in stress reducing activities (e.g., physical training) and recording journal entries detailing ongoing research activities (Dunn 1991).

Researchers are at risk of experiencing psychological and emotional distress during the research process. My fieldwork in Kenya was an emotionally challenging experience. Listening carefully and responsively to the illness narratives of women living with HIV in Kenya often brought me to tears in the field, a subject researchers often omit in their publications perhaps because the emotional reactions of researchers may be seen as unprofessional, inappropriate, or humiliating behaviour. Researchers like Davies and Spencer (2010) and Gross (2002) suggest that expressing strong emotions toward participants may in fact help to establish a researcher-participant relationship. Becoming aware of emotional triggers while studying sensitive topics and learning how to resolve these feelings is important to the ethical integrity of the study and of the researcher’s wellbeing. Further research is required to address concerns related to developing an awareness of emotional appropriateness in the field and how to deal with emotional triggers when returning to field notes or research subjects’ narratives.

Methodological challenges in working with vulnerable groups

The difficulties of recruitment and retention in research focusing on sensitive topics, specifically in social sciences, are well documented in the literature (Chiang et al. 2001; Gemmill et al. 2012; Bonevski et al. 2014; van Wijk 2014). The challenges of recruiting potential participants are identified as the lack of trust between potential participants and researchers, difficulty in retaining recruited participants, and concerns related to data analysis techniques (Chiang et al. 2001; van Wijk 2014). Traditional methods of recruiting vulnerable groups such as peer-to-peer recruitment, online or flyer advertisements, and gatekeeper referrals are still relevant in current qualitative studies. Innovative research methodologies and data collection processes are needed for the examination of vulnerable groups.

Recruitment of research participants

Building rapport with community agencies assists in defining and planning a study involving vulnerable groups, establishing research goals that are relevant to the population, and gaining a better understanding of the target population (Horowitz et al. 2002; Kavanaugh et al. 2006). The gatekeeper may or may not be a single person in the group under study. The role of the gatekeeper is to ensure that ethical principles for the research study are followed, help to refine the project if necessary, and to provide access to vulnerable populations. Benoit et al. (2005) proposes that vulnerable populations share the following characteristics: 1) vulnerable groups do not identify with traditional definitions of vulnerability; 2) identifying as part of a vulnerable group can lead to stigmatization, ostracism, and other forms of interpersonal rejection; and, 3) vulnerable populations avoid identity disclosure to non-members before establishing a researcher-participant relationship to avoid discrimination. Collaborative relations with gatekeepers assist to overcome these barriers and address the concerns of potential respondents before the data collection process.

Although the role of the gatekeeper in community research is critical to the success of the study, there are a number of problems encountered in developing these collaborative relationships. This includes issues of trust, beneficence and methods of data dissemination (Shoultz et al. 2006). Lee (1993) suggests that some gatekeepers may limit potential participants from research studies based on the concern of emotional or psychological harm and perceive little community benefit from participating in the study. The inclusion of community based agencies in the development of the research design allows gatekeepers to ensure that the beneficence of the community is upheld throughout the project, and creates ongoing dialogue between partnerships to alleviate any mistrust that may exist from participating in previous health studies.

Gaining access to vulnerable populations can be achieved with the help of gatekeepers and seeking social support from colleagues or mentors. Some researchers may also provide participants with appropriate reimbursement (e.g., cash or gift certificates) for their enrollment in the study and to acknowledge the value of participants’ time. Participant payment raises a number of ethical issues pertaining to the individual’s ability to make an informed decision (Sikweyiya and Jewkes 2013). The availability of financial incentives may be perceived as coercion in health-related studies with vulnerable populations (UyBico et al. 2007). It is the responsibility of research ethic boards to assess the ethicality or integrity of using financial incentives while working with vulnerable populations on a project-by-project basis.

Retention of research participants

The use of incentives to recruit and retain participants may assist in the enrolment of potential respondents for sensitive research, but does not ensure that individuals involved in the study will fully disclose their stories to the researcher (Hadidi et al. 2013). Reasons for participant withdrawal from sensitive research studies are well documented in the literature (Raymond et al. 2004; Edwards 2005). It is important to be aware of the limitations of potential participants and integrate this knowledge in the final report. Some of the most frequently cited reasons for non-participation include lifestyle demands, lack of transportation, identity disclosure and time constraints (Hadidi et al. 2013). As mentioned previously, informed consent is an ongoing process. Maintaining open dialogue with participants throughout the study may address some of the concerns or fears for continuing their involvement. Hadidi et al. (2013:41) proposes  “it is important not only to explain the study and the participant’s obligations if he or she enrolls, but also to ask the participant to explain in his or her own words what participation in the study entails.” The use of supervision or advisory committee meetings to discuss data collection processes, such as recruitment and retention protocols, can help in addressing some of the barriers researchers encounter after ethics board approval. Advisory boards also help graduate researchers address analytical and data integration problems.

Data analysis procedures

Gatekeepers or community partners emphasize the need for research projects, specifically those involving vulnerable populations, to be accessible to the general public to improve public policy and service delivery. The term accessible refers to providing gatekeepers or community agencies with a summary of the study’s findings in non-technical language (Beauvais 2006). Research framed strictly for academic purposes does not benefit potential respondents or the community nor does it meet beneficence principles maintained in ethical guidelines. This can hinder a researcher from accessing their population of interest (Beauvais 2006).

Conflicts of interest may arise during the interpretation and analysis of the collected data, and after the publication of the project findings. The involvement of a professional third party source to assist in transcription or data analysis processes poses a threat to the participants’ autonomy, anonymity and confidentiality associated with the study. The research design and ethics proposal must be transparent about the inclusion of a third party source involved in the research study. This is to assure the validity and reliability of the collected data and project. Researchers are required to inform gatekeepers or community agencies and participants about the use of third party researchers to address any concerns related to the ethicality of this approach (Brannen 1988). The research ethics board must also authorize the inclusion of third party sources. The approved third party must provide informed consent for their role in the study and maintain the ethical principles identified by the funding institution. The inclusion of a third party source can be beneficial during the process of transcribing interviews. This can be a time consuming task for the researcher, especially when there are a large number of participants enrolled in the study. Benoit and colleagues (2005) recommend that, if a researcher chooses to include a third party source in the transcription phase of their data analysis, a spot check or review of the transcriptions must be conducted to ensure verbatim transcription of interview data. The spot check method refers to a random sampling of transcribed interviews to ensure a level of accuracy and consistency across the transcribed data (Benoit et al. 2005).

Engaging in community-based research

Anthropological and other social sciences disciplines use the community-based research (CBR) approach as a strategy to develop trust and build rapport with communities and gain access to vulnerable populations (Shoultz et al. 2006). CBR is a growing approach in the social sciences to study vulnerable groups. This approach has evolved as a multidisciplinary framework to involve communities in the research decision-making process, evaluation of health disparities, and the development of culturally appropriate interventions (Shoultz et al. 2006; Lesser and Osós-Sánchez 2007). The CBR may also be particularly meaningful to a researcher as a co-learning experience that increases self-awareness and allows the researcher to investigate the self as a non-member of the community (Horowitz, Ladden, and Moriarty 2002). Shoultz et al. (2006) suggests that the merging of CBR with qualitative methodologies (i.e. participant observation, interviews, and focus group discussions) leads to the development of innovative methods to study vulnerable populations. The development of culturally appropriate methodologies is region specific by nature, and refers to the use of both quantitative and qualitative approaches.

The involvement of communities in sensitive research creates ongoing dialogue to understand the experiences of those being studied, the interrelationships between vulnerable populations, and the sociocultural realities of the group while maintaining respect for the participant (Scheyvens et al. 2003). Scheyvens and colleagues (2003) propose that to enhance research dialogue with communities, advisory boards comprised of academic and community representatives may assist in recruiting potential respondents, address how to maintain trust in the researcher-participant relation, and educate the community about the study (Scheyvens et al. 2003).

Knowledge exchange is a guiding principle in the CBR approach. Kurelek (1992) asserts that beneficence of a study should contribute to the wellbeing of participants and researchers and is a primary research goal. Participants’ preconceived notions about the context of beneficence relating to lifestyle improvement rather than cultural or community progress can inform their decision to become involved in a study. It is the responsibility of the researcher to ensure respondents understand the goals of the study (Kurelek 1992). Findings from research on vulnerable groups may be provided to the community including a summary report or training workshop to maintain the integrity of the study (Scheyvens et al. 2003). Dissemination of research findings to the community maintains trust in the researcher-participant relationship and ensures the principles of beneficence are met in order to improve the care of the population (Scheyvens et al. 2003).


Anthropologists and researchers from other social science disciplines have contributed a nuanced perspective to the construction of the concept of vulnerability using a sociocultural lens. The work of Coeckelbergh (2013) examines the theoretical framework of vulnerability and argues that the reconstruction of this concept is shaped by individual and societal experience. “Apart from being vulnerable in relation to the things we do and what might happen in a particular situation, we are also vulnerable by virtue of our capacity to imagine that something bad might happen” (Coeckelbergh 2013:45). This refers to the idea that theoretical understandings of vulnerability are important to ensure that research design processes are culturally appropriate and protect the integrity of the potential respondent.

Although anthropology has studied vulnerable populations from a cultural perspective, this paper further contributes to the theoretical and methodological discourse on vulnerability. Existing knowledge on the methodologies used to study vulnerable groups can be used to create innovative strategies to approach the concept of vulnerability during data collection processes. This will help to reduce the preceding challenges identified in this article such as maintaining the integrity of data, establishing rapport with the community of study, and resolving emotional distress related to the undertaking of sensitive research. This article provides graduate students with advice on preparing for and resolving challenges when conducting a project with vulnerable groups. This paper is a valuable contribution to the literature addressing the challenges of working with vulnerable populations, such as those living with HIV, which can often be less of a focus in anthropological discussions concerning vulnerabilities.

Anthropology and some other social science disciplines such as sociology and health studies continue to use traditional methodologies of data collection and analysis for conducting ethnographic research. Some suggest that there is a need to implement frameworks that provide a more meaningful analysis of vulnerable groups (Sacks 2008). It is recommended that social scientists continue to build relationships with the communities of study. The use of an advisory committee assists in overcoming ethical, practical, and methodological challenges in the field. I contend that the availability of published accounts of researcher’s experiences working with vulnerable populations can assist graduate students, and also academics, in addressing concerns underlying sensitive research as discussed in this paper (Dickson-Swift et al. 2007). Both of these suggestions will lead to more meaningful research studies with vulnerable groups. Limited research has focused on the individual experiences of researchers working in the field. The experiences of social scientists conducting studies on sensitive topics can be used to guide the development of models to address an investigator’s risk of harm in the field, establish rapport with community groups, and ensure that current ethical principles are revised to account for the sociocultural nature of individual experiences.

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Wendler, David, and Christine Grady. 2008. “What should research participants understand to understand they are participants in research?” Bioethics 22(4):203-208. 

UyBico, Stacy, Shani Pavel, and Cary Gross. 2007. “Recruiting Vulnerable Populations into Research: A Systematic Review of Recruitment Intervention.” Society of General Internal Medicine 22:852-863.       

UNAIDS. 2010. “The Greater Involvement of People Living with HIV (GIPA).” (Accessed June 5, 2013).

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van Wijk, Evalina. 2014. “Recruitment and Retention of Vulnerable Populations: Lessons Learned from a Longitudinal Qualitative Study.” The Qualitative Report 19(56):1-21. 

End Notes

[1]. See (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 1979).

Memories of the Herrin Massacre

by Caroline Robertson
Master’s Student | The American University, Washington, D.C., U.S.A.


Herrin, a small coal mining town in southern Illinois, has earned an infamous reputation because of its bloody family feuds, KKK presence, and perhaps most famously, for being the site of the “Herrin Massacre.” After union mineworkers went on strike over wage disputes in 1922, the owner of Lester Mine replaced them with non-union employees. This led to a deadly, violent exchange between the union and non-union mineworkers. My primary research interest in this massacre is to understand the historical trauma and present-day impacts this tragedy has had on the community. Through interviews with relatives and friends of those who took part in the Herrin Massacre, I have discovered the beginnings of a healing process taking place in Herrin, Illinois. The memories of the massacre are still foremost in the community’s minds; nevertheless there is some indication that the intensity of the conflict is lessening as a communal memory.

Key words: Herrin Massacre, coal mining, communal memory

Publication Information
Volume 3, Issue 1 (2017)


History is created by the practice of remembering past events. History and memory are entangled by being cultural recollections of the past (Argenti and Schramm 2012:7). Some histories are welcomed memories of the past, while other memories are challenged in the historical record. The Herrin Massacre is a case of contested history and memory. By examining oral portrayals of this event and comparing them to the historical literature, I seek to determine what the people of Herrin felt needed to be passed down for their posterity.

No anthropologist has yet published on the collective memory of the people of Herrin, Illinois, in Williamson County. Few anthropologists, until recently, have concerned themselves with memory transmission of violent and traumatic pasts (Gill 1999:874; Kidron 2012:198). While traumatic memories associated with the Herrin Massacre are alive in Herrin, they are hard to locate and even harder to access. Not many individuals are willing to speak of this time in the history of Herrin. As I began my research on the history of the Herrin Massacre, I wondered what the people of the town thought of it. When I began meeting with interviewees from Herrin, I became aware of their reserve in speaking about the massacre; they did not wish to be questioned about this time in their past. Indeed, the people of Herrin sought to forget about the massacre, and as a result, my question became concerned with why the people of Herrin today should want to extinguish an event that occurred long ago. I believe this is not only because those who were alive in Herrin in 1922 did not pass down much information about the massacre, but also because the reputation of the massacre has left a stain on the town itself. This event happened almost a hundred years ago and while no one who actively took part in the massacre still lives, their posterity and their memories live on in Herrin and the surrounding area.

Literature Review

Massacres have occurred throughout the world and throughout history. The examination of case studies of massacres over the course of history can help form a general set of ideas involving the occurrences and reasoning of cases consisting of multiple deaths. Also examined below are how communities have recovered from traumatic situations and how later generations have dealt with the trauma. By doing this, we are able to further understand how the descendants of the people involved in the Herrin Massacre view the events and current knowledge of their ancestors.

In Gourevitch’s (1998) book We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda, he explores the emotions that are connected with the sites and people associated with the killings in the Rwandan Massacre. The individuals killed in the Rwandan Massacre were of Tutsi origin, or were Hutu individuals who did not support the ethnic cleansing of the Tutsi people (Gourevitch 1998). In Rwanda, the Hutu people had been persecuted by the lighter skinned Tutsi for centuries (Gourevitch 1998). Though the Hutu people largely outnumbered the Tutsi population, the Tutsi’s still primarily controlled the government and the upper class (Gourevitch 1998). When the Rwandan government eventually came under Hutu control, it began compelling the people of their county to kill or be killed (Gourevitch 1998:95). Gourevitch points out that “killing Tutsis [became] a political tradition in postcolonial Rwanda; it brought people together” (1998:96).

When conducting his ethnography in Rwanda, Gourevitch (1998:242) was too late to get confessions of participation in the genocide. This was because most people who had earlier boasted about their involvement in the genocide realized how large of an error it was for them to admit their participation (Gourevitch 1998:244). In July of 1994, the genocide stopped because a new government had taken over (Gourevitch 1998:177), and when Gourevitch visited the prisoners in Rwanda that were arrested for genocide, he found “the famous mob mentality of blind obedience to authority often described in attempts to explain the genocide” (1998:243).

Unlike the Rwandan Massacre, there are fewer survivors associated with the El Mozote Massacre. In Leigh Binford’s ethnographic book, The El Mozote Massacre (1996), the author tells of a massacre that was planned out by the military of El Salvador who were ordered to murder thousands of peasants to send a message to the guerilla fighters who were in opposition to the Salvadoran military (Binford 1996:16). All the men, women, and children in town were murdered, leaving only a few people that escaped as survivors (Binford 1996:21-22). This has left the story of one survivor to be retold many times because she is one of the only surviving witnesses who will speak of the massacre (Binford 1996).

When Binford published The El Mozote Massacre (1996), about a decade after the El Mozote Massacre had ended, the inhabitants of El Mozote were debating whether the past should be covered up or allowed to live on to serve as a learning tool (Binford 1996:171). By including violent memories in a physical place of commemoration, the individual may form a connection with the public display, allowing a healing process to begin (Argenti and Schramm 2012:26). Creating physical places of memory transmission including that of museums and small shrines to those who have died has allowed the people of El Salvador to commemorate those who died during the revolution (Binford 1996:174). But, though some in El Salvador are willing to commemorate the massacre, there is a large population of those who are not willing to commemorate it because it brings up the pains of the past.

Those who currently live in the town of El Mozote are terrified of a massacre happening again (Binford 1996:185), and most who lived through the massacre do not wish to speak of it or recount the memory of what happened (Binford 1996:190). For many, “images of the massacre are submerged just below the surface of the mind like a suppressed nightmare capable of breaking unpredictably into consciousness” (Binford 1996:190). El Mozote is, a symbol of repression that will haunt the people of El Salvador for many years to come, and provide historical remembrance for family members of the people killed and the descendants of El Salvador’s government armies who committed these atrocities (Binford 1996:190).

Those who are alive at the time of tragedy and violence are not the only ones who become affected by such acts. Descendants of individuals who have endured some sort of trauma, as well as friends and family of those killed, can be transmitters of violent memories,. According to psychological studies of Holocaust victims, Vietnam veterans, and their children, descendants of people who have had traumatic experiences may have a corrupt sense of self and immoral behavior patterns (Kidron 2012:195). These memories depend largely on the culture one identifies with and this culture transmits such memories from one generation to the next (Argenti and Schramm 2012:15). The anthropologist Edward Sapir describes our tendency to conform to culture as “a healthy unconsciousness of the forms of socialized behavior to which we are subject” (Sapir 1927:246). Furthermore, Clifford Geertz described the culture of a people to have at least “a minimal degree of coherence”, or else the culture would not function as a group (1973:298). Therefore, groups of the same culture share similar thoughts, actions, and ways of dealing with histories.

If it is not culturally appropriate to speak of an event, then the event will not be spoken of. The descendants of trauma victims have a connection to their violent history but are also participants in repressing their cultural histories (Kidron 2012:198). The fear of purposefully uprooting the past causes descendants to listen carefully to their parents when they do speak of their traumatic past, but avoid directly inquiring about the topic. Descendants may commemorate their parents’ traumatic memories by allowing them to keep their memories to themselves (Kidron 2012:207). Kidron concludes that the historical transmission of tragic memories is culturally constructed depending on what memories are transferred from generation to generation, if any at all (2012:220).

Though parents might not recount their knowledge of an event to their posterity, archives do. Archives, which preserve materials such as press releases, recorded interviews, and photographs tell current residents of a community about their past and what happened in it. As historians Schwartz and Cook (2002) point out, “through archives, the past is controlled. Certain stories are privileged and others marginalized…. This represents enormous power over memory and identity, over the fundamental ways in which society seeks evidence of what its core values are and have been, where it has come from, and where it is going” (1). Archives provide people with access to what has happened in the past. They are keepers of memory. But archives only give humans a small piece of the story. The rest remains in memories and the structured stories of historical writers. By providing an archival review of the Herrin Massacre, I hope to give my readers a sense of place of Herrin, Illinois, and the situations surrounding the massacre.

Recorded Historical Review of the Massacre

Below is a comprehensive review of the archival literature found at local libraries of Herrin, and personal collections of literature given to me by one of my interviewees, Deanna Smillie. Information was compiled, reviewed, and compared to construct the most accurate description of the massacre that achieves provided. When first examining southern Illinois, it looks like an uneventful place littered with farms and small towns. However, Williamson County Illinois used to be an active place. Its main source of income was coal, and in the early 20th century, coal brought wealth and prosperity (A History of Herrin Illinois 2009). Southern Illinois was alive and well with growing towns and destination cities such as Herrin (A History of Herrin Illinois 2009).

Working in coalmines was (and still is) hard and grueling work with long hours and dangerous working conditions. These conditions prompted miners to form a union in which they fought for labor rights (A History of Herrin Illinois 2009; Baty 1923). In 1922 a group of union mineworkers from the Lester Mine went on strike demanding increased wages. While a group of people on strike might not seem very important, it is the impact that the union had on the county that made them so important (Angle 1991:4; Parker 1923; Baty 1923:11). In the town of Herrin, “unionism had penetrated every craft and industry… the miners had the active sympathy of the entire laboring population” (Angle 1991:13). The whole county of Williamson sympathized with the disgruntled mineworkers because they too understood the importance of the union and how it had made working and living conditions better for the mineworkers (Angle 1991:13; Colby 1982). Before unions, accidents in the mines were recurrent and the average daily payment was barely enough for a family to survive on (Angle 1991:13). Unions protected their member, which garnered worker loyalty within the union (Angle 1991:13; Baty 1923:11; Colby 1982).

When the union miners went on strike because of contract disagreements, the owner of the Lester Mine, William J. Lester, decided that he would not wait for the contract to be settled and hired non-union miners to strip the mine and haul the coal out of town to sell (Angle 1991:14; Baty 1923:12; Colby 1982; Roberts 1989:9A; Topics of the Day 1922). The non-union miners were hired from Chicago and were under the impression that their employment would not cause unrest with the other workers (Roberts 1989:9A). These miners were protected by mine guards who “had earned the hate and fear of strikers” because of previous cruelty to workers (Ballowe 2000:23).

Individuals from the area were being antagonized by the Lester Mine guards who closed local roads and harassed women in the area (Baty 1923:12; Ballowe 2000; Roberts 1989:9A). Local men were growing tired of the mine guards harassing the county and having their work being stolen by other miners, so they decided to take matters into their own hands. The men raided hardware stores and called upon other people of southern Illinois to join them in their cause (Ballowe 2000; Roberts 1989:9A). On June 21, 1922, forces of union mineworkers attacked a truck carrying non-union workers while others began to assemble around the mine (Ballowe 2000; Colby 1982; Roberts 1989:9A). The non-union workers became aware of the growing discontent of the local people and tried to quit but were prevented by the mine guards (Baty 1923:14).

The union miners called for a plane that began dropping bombs around the mine, while about 500 union members and their sympathizers surrounded it, and began firing on it with the non-union men inside (Ballowe 2000; Baty 1923:14; Colby 1982; Roberts 1989 9A). Gunfire was returned with gunfire, and a few union men were killed (Angle 1991: 30; Ballowe 2000; Colby 1982; Roberts 1989). The firing continued into the next day, until a truce was reached when the mine guards and men inside the Lester Mine surrendered (Ballowe 2000; Colby 1982; Roberts 1989:9A). The men believed that they would not be harmed and thought they were being marched toward Herrin to be taken out of the county (Angle 1991:4; Baty 1923:14; Ballowe 2000; Colby 1982; Roberts 1989:9A). Instead, the mine guards and non-union mineworkers were taken to Power House Woods, “placed before a barbed wire fence, and told to ‘Run for your lives’” (Roberts 1989:9A). Some men escaped while others were shot to death (Angle 1991:10; Baty 1923:14; Ballowe 2000; Colby 1982; Roberts 1989:9A). Other non-union mineworkers had their throats slit at the Herrin Cemetery (Ballowe 2000; Roberts 1989:9A).

In total, three union mine members were killed as a result of the shootings (Angle 30; Ballowe 2000; Roberts 1989:9A) and nineteen non-union miners were killed (Angle 1991:10; Roberts 1989:8B) (Colby 1982, lists twenty non-union miners and guards). A total of “214 [people were issued indictments]—forty-four for murder, fifty-eight for rioting, and fifty-four for assault to murder” (Angle 1991:40). The people of Herrin gave alibis (Ballowe 2000) and paid bonds for those who were going to be put in jail (Roberts 1989:8B). No one was ever convicted of having a part in the massacre (Angle 1991:47; Colby 1982; Roberts 1989:8B). Though not all of Herrin was in support of the massacre, the overarching attitude of the town was that “greed had claimed its own and was satisfied” (Parker 1923:50).

Newspapers throughout North America expressed outrage over the lack of arrests for the incident (Jones n.d.; Roberts 1989:8B; Topics of the Day 1922). The Los Angeles Times called it “blood lust” while Canadian newspapers called for miners to be found at fault (Jones n.d.). President Harding said, “murder is murder” and called for the arrest of the perpetrators of the massacre (Jones n.d.). Everywhere, people called for the state and local governments to do something about the murders, but nothing was to come of it (Roberts 1989:8B; Jones n.d.; Parker 1923:54).


The goal of this project was to generate as many interviews of individuals who had ancestors or close friends who were at the Herrin Massacre, regardless of the type of involvement they had. The goal of collecting this information is to critically examine the discourse and memories that have been passed down through the generations and compare the transmitted memories with the academic record of the massacre. This was to become a discussion of the memories that have been passed down and how they are collectively used in the town of Herrin, Illinois. Before I spoke with these families, I compiled as much information about the massacre as I could so that I was able to follow the stories of my interviewees.

Upon beginning my research, I was met with much opposition from the locals. For me to collect stories from the town’s inhabitants was something of a charged subject. Some individuals wanted to speak of their family’s memories of the massacre, while others questioned my motives for wishing to explore their past. I understood the opposition to my questioning of Herrinites on the subject of their violent past as I was not the first person to question the town about it. Their ancestors had been ridiculed in the past for their actions and involvement with the massacre, as well as publicly and nationally condemned as a town (Topics of the Day 1922). After hearing rumors of Herrinities occasionally beginning to speak about the massacre, I implemented snowball sampling to gain access to Herrinities who were willing to be interviewed about the Herrin Massacre. First, I began speaking with family friends from the area and from this, I was able to gain accesses to four interviewees. I also began speaking with a librarian at the Herrin Library who was willing to provide me with textual information about the massacre that was stored in a special collection. The librarian was not willing to be interviewed for fear of reprimand from her employer, but was willing to provide me with contacts from the town of Herrin to speak with me from which I gained nine more interviewees.

All the individuals that I interviewed were aged 45 years or older, with at least ten individuals who were aged 60 or older. Though I did not directly ask my interviewees their age, a few of them mentioned it in the interview, and I was able to deduce age by speaking to them in person. Some individuals relayed to me stories of their grandchildren or great grandchildren, further allowing me to confidently assume the age group of my interviewees. All interviews were conducted in person at the interviewee’s home residence, relative’s home, or the local nursing home. My interviews were conducted either one on one or in a group setting, depending on the number of residents in the home. Homes with multiple residents spoke with me as a group. The interviewees were all Herrin residents at one time in their life and now either lived in Herrin, or just outside the town. All interviewees were related to or close friends with someone who was present at the massacre. One interviewee was born eight years before the massacre and has memories of the time shortly after it.

I provided my interviewees with consent forms to sign that allowed me to record and later transcribed the interview, with the recordings of the interview to be deleted after transcription. The consent forms also inquired on the use of their names in written and published documents. All interviewees indicated that I could use their names, but I have since decided against the use of my interviewees’ names to protect the privacy of my interviewees. Each interview lasted from twenty minutes to an hour, depending on their knowledge of the massacre. I used an interview protocol sheet to guide each of my interviews with eight questions about the town and the massacre itself. I also told my interviewees that they could elaborate as much as they wanted on each question, with the freedom to decline answering. The specific questions used to guide these interviews that can be found in the appendix.

Presentation of Data

Over ninety years have passed since the Herrin Massacre has taken place, and although those who participated in the massacre have long since passed, their memories of what happened on June 22, 1922, have been passed down to their descendants and the people of Herrin. Though the information that has been passed down is limited, it is still there. Many responses to my questions of the massacre included “I don’t know much because I was never told” and “We don’t like to talk about that here.” I wanted to know what the people of Herrin did know, how they got their information, and why they would rather not talk about the subject. The people of Herrin in 1922 were not the targets of the events surrounding the massacre, but were instead considered to be the perpetrators of the events themselves.

Some of my informants were able to relay memories of the events of the Herrin Massacre that had been passed down to them from parents or grandparents. My informant Chad remembers stories of the people of Herrin and surrounding areas being scared to death of the mine guards at Lester Mine because they were cruel to the non-union mineworkers and disrupted everyday life. The mine guards would “just drive down the road and get out to pick a fight or shoot over someone’s head” (personal interview, Oct. 28, 2014). Although the books written about the incident claim that union men looted local stores to acquire weapons, a man Chad knew said “he didn’t see any looting” (personal interview, Oct. 28, 2014). Furthermore, Chad’s family members tell an account of the massacre where individuals on the non-union coal miner’s side fired the first shot (personal interview, Oct. 28, 2014). The union mineworkers begged the non-union people to surrender, but the mine guards had machine guns set up to deter the union mine works from coming in and taking over the mine.

A few of my informants had family members that remember seeing some of the killings. My informant, John, began by telling me about the events his grandfather and father were involved in on the day of the massacre. His grandfather took his father out to see what was going on, and when they arrived, “the initial killings were over, but it was still in a considerable state of flux” (personal interview, Oct. 14, 2014). He saw the bodies of McDowell, the manager of the Lester mine and a hanging victim on the ground. They also saw a man who was shot asking for a drink of water. John recalled what his father saw and heard.

The first thing that he told me about was that where he had seen the fella killed that there were bodies around, that there were people standing around and grandpa pulled in with the car and got out and told dad to stay in the car and dad was looking through the window, which it was warm so the windows were down, and he could hear everything that was going on. There was a man who was on his knees holding his belly, had been shot through and he was begging another fella for a drink of water, the fella had a pistol and said ‘Yeah you son of a bitch, I’ll give you a drink of water.’ And he pointed the pistol in the man’s face and dad turned away, heard the shot and turned around to find the man down. So ummm he said that it was a carnival atmosphere that people were going to it the way you would go to a carnival. (Personal interview, Oct. 14, 2014)

The Allegrettos told me a story of Mr. Allegretto’s father who saw a man lying in a ditch on June 22, yelling for somebody to help him. But as Mr. Allegretto’s father started across the road to help, he was told to get back or he would have to be shot as well. After the non-union mineworkers were led away from the mine, some local men, including John’s grandfather, took part in the looting of the miners’ barracks, stealing items such as canned peaches, canned tomatoes, and a folding cot (personal interview, Oct. 14, 2014).

After the massacre, the bodies were laid out in the Dillard building in downtown Herrin for public viewing. My interviewee, Mr. Blair, told me about his dad’s only recollection of the massacre, which was when his grandfather brought his dad into downtown Herrin to see the bodies displayed in the building. Mr. Blair believed that these individuals were in the Dillard building to be embalmed, however, my interviewee Chad told me that according to his dad’s recollection, the bodies were not embalmed. Chad recounted stories of his dad being taken by his parents to the Dillard building to see all of the victims laid out. His dad believed that the mineworkers that were killed were all black. Chad later found out that his young dad, seeing bodies that had not been embalmed and laying out for a few days, tricked his young mind into thinking the men were black when really their white skin had just darkened from not being preserved.

Most of my informants knew from reading books that after the massacre, victims were on public display. Afterwards, the claimed victims were taken back to Chicago while the unclaimed victims were buried in a section of the Herrin City Cemetery. My informant May recalled her mom taking her to the cemetery on the Memorial Day after the massacre. May’s family was placing flowers on the gravestones of their loved ones when her mother pointed out to her where the potter’s field was in the cemetery, and told her that was where the ‘scabs’ (non-union workers) were buried in the cemetery (personal interview, Oct. 15,2014). Other than this one incident from when she was younger, May did not remember her family speaking about the massacre much because she was a young girl at the time (personal interview, Oct. 15, 2014).

After the massacre, a trial was held for those involved. My informant Carrie spoke the most about the trial. He recalls stories being told to him of the people who were paid off by the union mineworkers and their supporters to not prosecute the union workers on trial. Carrie claims that the whole town provided alibis for all of the accused, and that no one was ever convicted for the killings of the massacre.

The people of Herrin have mixed views on the events surrounding the Herrin Massacre. Some do not agree with what happened, while others claimed that it was only a matter of time before the United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) were to do something about their jobs being given away. Over half of my informants discussed how their families were mine working families that lived in the area, and how they were proud of their relatives for working in such hard conditions. Mr. Allegretto and his wife fondly recalled Mr. Allegretto’s dad, who was a coal miner and held the title of working the longest in mines of Illinois. My informant Chad believes that the union miners did what had to be done to keep the union together. My informants are proud of their heritage and want their ancestors to be remembered as hard workers and not as part of a massacre. They believe that the coal miners who took part in the Herrin Massacre just wanted their jobs back, but unfortunately, some of the rebellious individuals decided to become violent.

Almost all of my informants expressed some form of regret for what happened to the twenty-three people killed in the massacre. John said that after his grandfather’s participation in the lootings of the mineworker’s barracks, his  developed a distaste for peaches and tomatoes and regretted taking part in it. Mr. Allegretto recalls how it had bothered his dad that he was unable to help the man in the ditch at the massacre. The ancestors have left a veil of regret on the townspeople of Herrin.

Some of my informants displayed an immanent sense of regret and concern about how outsiders see the town. Mrs. Blair commented on the judgment that Herrin has received from having a violent past. She explained that “people … say ‘oh, Bloody Williamson’…but we just kinda roll it off” (personal interview, Oct. 27, 2014). Kevin said that, “Herrin folks are good people. They feel that they have been improperly judged” (personal interview, Oct. 15, 2014). My informants’ families and friends who were alive at the time of the massacre did not want to talk about it, leaving their posterity with little information. Mr. and Mrs. Blair did not learn of the massacre until their late teens, and both commented that people in the town did not speak of the event when they were growing up (personal interview, Oct. 27, 2014). As Mr. Blair said, “the skeletons in your closet, you don’t want to rattle them” (personal interview, Oct. 27, 2014). Mr. Raven’s dad was at the massacre but never spoke of it. Mr. Raven tried to get information out of his father’s friends, but when he asked them about the massacre only one of the men responded while “look[ing] around different directions to see if anyone was in there before he would even say anything” (personal interview, Oct. 28, 2014). My informant Carrie has had people tell him that they think their dads were involved in the massacre, but they never asked their fathers about it when they were alive. One of my interviewees, Bob, moved to Herrin in 1923 and knew almost nothing about the massacre.

A few of my interviewees have taken it upon themselves to do research on the massacre. John and Kevin joined a team of locals who have been concerning themselves with the events of the Herrin Massacre and have been trying to educate local individuals on what occurred. They have gained a better understanding of the events that took place around the massacre and are arguably helping the community cope with the title of “Bloody Williamson.” The team has received both good and bad reviews from locals, with some glad that they are trying to get the town to accept their past, while others believe that it should stay buried. My informant Carrie even wrote a book about the Herrin massacre. He was always interested about the town’s past and had interviewed many people himself about their experiences during the time of the massacre. In particular, his interests were in that of the trial for the people accused of taking part in the massacre.

My eldest interviewee, May, was born in the generation that was alive at the time of the massacre. There is a marked difference in her curiosity about the massacre and the tragic events that took place. May stated “since [the massacre] it [people’s questions] have never died down, and people are still asking questions about it”, it will take a long time for the town to heal (personal interview, Oct. 15, 2014). May thinks of Herrin as the thriving city that it was before the Depression hit, and not as a place where a massacre occurred.

As for the most recent generation of Herrin, students are being taught the good and bad aspects of Herrin’s past. Some teachers have begun to teach the events of the Herrin Massacre in their classrooms, and the Allegretto’s daughter is one of these teachers. In a personal conversation with her, she told me about how the younger generation is embracing Herrin’s past. The newest generation is taught to not be ashamed of their past, but to learn from it instead.

Herrin has received the title of “Bloody Williamson” over the years because of the violent past of the town. Many of my informants spoke of other occurrences in Herrin that have given it the title of Bloody Williamson. The Bloody Vendetta (a long running family feud that occurred in the area), activities of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), and other murders were brought to my attention by my informants. Carrie informed me that the KKK moved into Herrin after the massacre, using it as an excuse to “clean up the town” (personal interview, Oct. 15, 2014). A few of my informants told me stories about their fathers’ run-ins with them during the short time that the KKK controlled Herrin, and shootouts that occurred between the leader of the KKK, S. Glenn Young, and the leader of the KKK’s opposition (personal interview, Oct. 18, 2014; Sam 2013). Two of my informants even attributed their failing knowledge of the massacre to their family’s ties and fears of the KKK (personal interview, Oct. 28, 2014).

Memories of the Herrin massacre have been obscured over the years, leaving many memories and judgments about the massacre in question. A couple of my informants admitted to their failing memories of what their parents or friends had said about the massacre. John said that his dad told him the story of what happened only a few times in his life and only once did he take him to see exactly where the events of that day occurred. John thought that they happened east of Crenshaw crossing, but later realized that “it was [his] memory that was faulty” (personal interview, Oct. 14, 2014). The landscape had changed so much since he was a boy that his memories could not provide the exact locations of where his father had witnessed the events of the massacre.

Finally, most of my informants were concerned about the current recovery efforts happening in Herrin’s City Cemetery. Within the last few years, geologists and anthropologists from Eastern Illinois University have begun to look into the burial sites of those who were buried in the Herrin City Cemetery after the massacre. The people of Herrin are concerned about what the individuals excavating the potter’s field of the Herrin City Cemetery have found and how the remains of the victims will be portrayed in relation to the town. Some informants are concerned that the graves of their ancestors are being disturbed in the process, while others hope that they find the right bodies and have thoroughly done their research. It is common knowledge amongst the residents of Herrin that the ‘scab’ individuals that were not claimed by family were buried in the potter’s field of Herrin City Cemetery, “an area typically reserved for the unwanted, the unknown, and the unidentified” (Hall 2013). According to the research conducted by an individual named Scott Dooty, author of Herrin Massacre (2013), this area is without place markers and subsequently has been subject to commingled burials (Mariano 2013). The current unearthing of the massacre has led some in Herrin, such as John, to reconsider the events of the massacre and begin to provide their own opinions on it. As John says, “You’re entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts…, facts are what they are and I think the things that’s most important is for people to understand that it was a different world [in 1922]” (personal interview, Oct. 14, 2014).

Implications and Conclusions

The goal of this project was to examine oral portrayals of the Herrin Massacre and compare them to the historical literature. By completing interviews with residents of Herrin, I was able to get a small glimpse of what the people of Herrin felt needed to be passed down for their posterity. I was not surprised that the people I interviewed all knew of the Herrin Massacre, but had varying degrees of knowledge about it. I was even less surprised that none of my interviewees said that they had ever spoken to a person who had physically taken part in the killing of any of the massacre’s victims. All the stories that were told to me were from people watching the massacre, trying to help those being persecuted, or from individuals taking part in the looting surrounding the massacre. Historically, the records of the massacre indicated a large population of the town being involved with the massacre and directly supporting the killing. Yet, this is not the information that was relayed to me by my interviewees.

I received a substantial amount of information from the people of Herrin. Though some people were reluctant to speak of it, I managed to record many personal stories about the Herrin Massacre and the personal lives of its inhabitants of 1922. Once I interviewed a few people, many more seemed willing to speak with me. Perhaps it was because I interviewed respected individuals who recommended me to others, or perhaps it was the small-town relationship I drew upon with each person I interviewed. I myself am from a small town, and my dad is from a small town about an hour north of Herrin. I come from a family with great respect for coal miners and was able to translate this to the people I interviewed. I was lucky in the fact that I was not a complete outsider to the culture of the town of Herrin. “Forms and significances which seem obvious to an outsider will be denied outright by those who carry out the patterns: outlines and implication that are perfectly clear to these may be absent to the eye of the onlooker” (Sapir 1927:239). I, as a researcher who was not completely removed from the culture from which I was studying, was able to notice and gain access to the histories of my interviewees.

The information that I received from those I interviewed about the Ku Klux Klan’s involvement in the aftermath of the massacre was too great to not look into further. Seven out of the thirteen people I interviewed – Carrie, the Ravens, the Allegrettos, and the Blairs – all mentioned the KKK in their stories about the Herrin massacre. Some people believed the KKK might have had something to do with the massacre, however, while looking into details about the KKK’s involvement in Herrin, I found no such ties with the Lester Mine or the proceedings of the massacre. I only found that the KKK was brought into Herrin after the massacre to regulate the county (Lockwood and DeNeal 2011, Pruett 1989). The KKK believed that the prevailing lawlessness in Williamson County had reached its peak after the Herrin Massacre, and therefore needed outside influence to help law enforcement to regulate the county’s lawlessness (Lockwood and DeNeal 2011).

All of the individuals that I interviewed told me that the town’s way was to keep quiet about the massacre and try their best to bury the past. As Gourevitch found when he tried to interview the perpetrators of genocide in Rwanda, people decided not to speak on the subject once they received ridicule for their actions (1998:244). Further, as in the massacre that occurred at El Mozote, many of the residents of the town did not want to speak of their violent past and remember what happened (Binford 1996). As one resident of Herrin commented, “the more you try to cover it up and keep it secret, it just makes it more enticing” (personal interview, Oct. 14, 2014). Most of the people that I interviewed wished that they could tell me more. My interviewees regretted that they had not asked their parents more questions about it when they were alive but now will never have the chance to. It has been 92 years since the massacre happened, leaving almost all people who had been alive at that time deceased or too young at the time to remember much.

Perhaps this is why people have been able to talk about the massacre more in recent years. As Kidron found in her study of trauma descendants, the memories of violent histories become less painful to the descendants as generations go by (2012:193). Since their parents are gone, they feel that they can now speak of the massacre without offending them. The same assumption also seems to be the case for those who were not relatives, but provided information about the massacre. One of my interviewees has published a book that recounts tales of the Herrin Massacre, but he has only recently published it because “there are two people I got most of my information from. Both of them are dead. That is why I thought it was OK to go ahead and publish the book” (personal interview, Oct. 15, 2014).

For most of the current people of Herrin, the massacre is an all but forgotten memory. The generation that was alive around the time of the massacre has successfully snuffed out most of the collective memory of June 22, 1922. As Argenti and Schramm state “if a … community agrees that a trauma did not happen, then it vanishes from collective memory” (2012:11). Though it was not spoken of in Herrin, neighboring towns spoke of it, and newspapers across the country wanted answers to the untimely deaths of 22 young men (Angle 1991:30; Ballowe 2000; Roberts 1989:9A). People have written books on the event, compiling together as much information as possible to let others know of a history that need not be forgotten.

The current population of Herrin is just beginning to learn about their own history. Unless memories are shared, they are forgotten and become less significant to a population (Argenti and Schramm 2012:5). I found this to be true when interviewing people for my project. If the memories of tragedies are not shared and passed on, then a population can never begin to cope with them and heal from them. Some memories of the Herrin Massacre have been passed on and uncovered by a curious first and second generation of Herrinites that were born since the massacre. The memories are still there as they “have a profound impact on the identity of a generation of people who have not directly experienced that which is being remembered” (Argenti and Schramm 2012:23).

These memories have been historicized in the topics that have been moralized in the minds of the people of Herrin. Some stories of the massacre that have been passed down are not the same as what is recorded in historical books. Most of the people of Herrin today try to disassociate themselves and their community from the Herrin Massacre. As one resident of Herrin stated, “we hate to see the past dragged up because it reflects on the current generation, which has nothing to do with it” (Colby 1982). For example, my informant Chad, relayed to me that there was no looting done before the massacre, while Doody’s book, Herrin Massacre (2013), leads readers to believe that union miners formed a mob that looted gun and ammunition stores both in Herrin and its surrounding towns (personal interview, Oct. 28, 2014; Doody 2013:54-55). The two sides of this story have been constructed from different perspectives of the Herrin Massacre. Both histories have been formed by their respective interviewees and have been shaped by two different “socially…informed or determined…reactions to extreme violence” (Argenti and Schramm 2012:15). The culture surrounding the town of Herrin has been to not speak of their violent past, while scholars and historians have openly examined it.

Some descendants of traumatic situations “show a disinterest in historicizing their familial past and avoid public form of commemoration” (Kidron 2012: 193). Herrin just put up a grave marker last year in 2015 at the site where the ‘scabs’ are thought to have been buried. Some individuals in the town feel that there should not be public commemoration of the massacre, but others feel the need to uncover the past.

The best thing that is coming out (of the recent discoveries and research being done on the massacre) is the more open and public acknowledgement that something awful happened here and… ya know we can’t control the history we are dealt. All we have to do is deal with it. (Personal interview, Oct. 14, 2014)

The Herrin Library has recently installed a display commemorating the massacre and to inform the public of what happened in 1922. I was also informed during my interviews that in 2014, Herrinites began giving tours of the Herrin Massacre (Herrin Massacre Tour 2014), and that it has been called “a healing tour” by a local author and tour guide (The Southern Illinoisan 2014). Perhaps the time has come for Herrin to accept their past, both the good and the bad of what has happened in this small town. As one particular interviewee stated, “I think the time is finally ripe for closure. It’s not going to be a total closure, but a healthy acceptance” (personal interview, Oct. 14, 2014). Although I am not part of the Herrin community, I was able to provide an ethnography and a “a vocabulary in which…. the role of culture in human life… can be expressed” (Geertz 1973:304).

Perhaps by trying to understand the archival stories of the massacre as compared to the oral history of the massacre, I have been able to preserve and better understand the community that the Herrin Massacre left behind. My study of the descendants of a community who were the aggressors of violence shows a side of trauma victims who are not readily thought of as victims. Furthermore, it focuses on a group of people who have not yet entered the anthropological discourse as unspoken victims of the Herrin massacre. The people of Herrin seem to be experiencing a change in moral beliefs from that of their predecessors. They have experienced guilt for their ancestors’ and friends’ past crimes. The town shows remorse for the past and is committed to learning about their heritage, both the good and bad parts of the town’s history. By educating the townspeople of Herrin about the past, Herrin has begun to heal as a community.


I would like to thank my first informant, Deanna Smillie, for providing me with books, inspiration, and a tour of Herrin. I would also like to thank my interviewees and informants who provided me with their knowledge of the history of Herrin. Finally, I would like to thank the late Marguerite Rodney for providing me with one last interview. May she rest in peace.

Works Cited

Angle, Paul M. 1991. Bloody Williamson: A Chapter in American Lawlessness. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Argenti, Nicolas and Schramm, Katharina. 2012. “Introduction.” In Remembering Violence: Anthropological Perspectives on Intergenerational Transmission. Nicolas Argenti and Katharina Schramm, eds., 1-39. New York: Berghahn Books.

Baty, R. E. 1923. The Workman’s Manual of Parliamentary Rules and Usages. Christopher, IL: Christopher Progress.

Ballowe, James. 2000. “The Herrin Massacre.” In One Hundred Years of Herrin, Illinois. Gordon Pruett, ed., 23. Herrin, IL: Herrin Chamber of Commerce.

Binford, Leigh. 1996. “‘Massacre’ and ‘History and Memory.’” In The El Mozote Massacre: Anthropology and Human Rights. Tuscon: The University of Arizona Press.

Colby, Terri. 1982. “60 years later, memories of labor violence still linger in Herrin.” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, June 22.

Doody, Scott. 2013. Herrin Massacre. United States of America: Dick’s Chicken Shack Productions.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory Culture.” In Readings for a History of Anthropological Theory, Fourth Edition. Paul A. Erickson and Liam D. Murphy, eds., 290-306. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Gourevitch, Philip. 1998. We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda. New York: Picador.

Hall, Sara. 2013. “Digging a Little Deeper: Steven Di Naso and other researchers attempt to unearth secrets of 1922 Herrin Massacre.” Eiuthreesixty., Accessed Nov. 11, 2014.

Herrin Massacre Tour. N.d. “Homepage.”, Accessed Nov. 12, 2014.

History of Herrin Illinois, A. 2009.  Herrin Chamber of Commerce. 41min. Herrin, Illinois. DVD.

Jones, John Price. N.d. “The Herrin Massacre: What the Leading Newspapers of the Country Have to Say on the Wholesale Murders in the Southern Illinois Coal Strike.” New York.

Kidron, Carol A. 2012. “Silent Legacies of Trauma: A Comparative Study of Cambodian Canadian and Israeli Holocaust Trauma Descendent Memory Work.” In Remembering Violence: Anthropological Perspectives on Intergenerational Transmission. Nicolas Argenti             and Katharina Schramm, eds., 193-228. New York: Berghahn Books.

Lockwood, Brocton and Gary DeNeal. 2011. Shades of Gray. Fairfield, Illinois: Wayne Country Press.

Mariano, Nick. 2013. “Mayor Ritter: Stop the cemetery dig. Others Say Too Much to Possibly Learn.” The Southern Illinoisan., Accessed November 11, 2014.

Parker, Chatland. 1923. “The Herrin Massacre: A Fair And Impartial Statement Of The All The Facts: The Trial Evidence, Verdict.” Williamson County Historical Society.

Pruett, Gordon. 1989. Life and Exploits of S. Glenn Young, a reprint to the 1925 biography of S. Glenn Young: World-Famous Law Officer. Herrin, Illinois: Crossfire Press.

Roberts, Pearl. 1989. “Herrin Massacre secured ‘bloody’ reputation: Williamson County History.” Spokesman, September 28:9A, 8B.

Sam. 2013. “The Ku Klux Klan in Williamson County, Part Two.” Marion Illinois History Preservation. 20 Sept. Web. 23 Nov. 2014

Sapir, Edward. 1927. “The Unconscious Patterning of Behavior in Society.” In Readings for a History of Anthropological Theory, Fourth Edition. Paul A. Erickson and Liam D. Murphy, eds., 237-246. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Schwartz, Joan M. and Terry Cook. 2002. “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science 2:1-19.

The Southern Illinoisan. 2014. Oct. 31. “Herrin Massacre Tour ‘a healing experience’ for some.” Special Sections., Accessed Nov. 12, 2014.

Topics of the Day. 1922. The Literary Digest, Vol. LXXIV, No.2. July 8:5-7.

Appendix: Modern Memories of the 1922 Tragedy in Herrin Interview Protocol

I will ask you a list of questions. Feel free to elaborate as much as you want on each. You are also free to decline answering any of these questions.

1) How familiar with the town of Herrin?

2) How familiar are you with the Herrin Massacre?

3) Are you familiar with anyone who has retold stories regarding the events of the Massacre?

If so, what is your relationship with this person?

How do you think the events surrounding the massacre affected them?

4) Do you have any ancestors who were alive and in or around at the time of the massacre?

5) What information can you recall being told about the massacre?

6) How is the massacre remembered today? Does anyone speak of it in public or private?

7) Do you know other people who might be willing to talk about the Massacre?

8) What are your thoughts about the town’s past?

The Nail in the Man’s Leg

by Christine cricri Bellerose
PhD Candidate | York University, Toronto, Canada


This article aims at situating the ethnographic dimensional shift of a found object. This essay takes a look at the journey of a nail object and its many dimensions in relationship to the human encountering the nail-object, and in the situation of the many worlds the nail object inhabits. Burning Man festival, in this essay, serves as the dynamic stage for such study of relationships.

Key words: artifact, Burning Man festival, dimensions, found object, object boundaries, worlds

Publication Information
Volume 3, Issue 1 (2017)


In this essay, I reflect on some relations between dimensions, worlds, and boundaries as they may be experienced by humans and objects (Dumit 2015; Star 1989; 1999). The first part of the article puts theories of dimensionality, boundaries and worlds, and language in conversation together. The second part of the article is an autoethnographic account. The ethnographic experience takes place at Burning Man festival — a unique transformational and art festival of epic proportions, held yearly since 1986 on the American west coast. “The Nail in the Man’s Leg” follows the shifts of dimension of a found object — a nail. It asks, “How do the relationships between the object, the worlds and boundaries it inhabits and travels affect the dimensions of the object?”

Such relations are outcomes of the specific mixture of place, event, and the world affiliation of humans populating the place while attending the event. This essay is not an exploration of human performance in a festival context; it is not an essay describing the costumes of the participants, or historicizing the making of a cult event in the USA. It is not an essay that debates identity and gender politics around a festival named Man, neither is it an anthropological journal of humans answering to the call of pagan rites while conforming to a contemporary commodification of magic. Discussing the festival as a curiosity, and evaluating its contribution to the arts—this article does not do that. But, for the sake of understanding the dimensional shifts of a nail-object, from one human encounter to another human encounter at the festival Burning Man, this essay begins with a brief history of what that festival is, and how the humans attending are forming their own worlds and boundaries within the festival event itself.


Burning Man festival is a complex and populated event where gathers a vast number of humans around one goal: attending Burning Man festival. The “Man” refers to the towering effigy. The burning of the effigy on a Baker Beach in San Francisco in 1986 started what is now called Burning Man festival (Burning Man). It since moved to Black Rock Desert in Nevada, USA. The Man is a wooden art structure built to burn. It mostly is built out of wood, wired with an intricate pyrotechnic and lighting design. The Man structure towers over, and is placed at the center of the whole of what’s called “the city.” The burning of the event culminates the week long festival, first as a pyrotechnic performance, followed by the biggest and loudest party of the event. The specific event is also called the “burn.”Burning” refers to attending Burning Man festival. A “burner” is a Burning Man festival goer. “I can always tell a burner,” speaks of recognizing another festival goer, outside of the festival period and place. A burner is not someone who works, organizes, provides medical care, or patrols the festival. Regional burns and pre-burns respectively refer to smaller versions of the festival taking place in various locations around the world at various time.

What started as a two-people fire ritual grew to its current near 80,000 people event. Las Vegas’s population is 613,599, Reno’s population is 227,511 (United States Census Bureau). They are Nevada’s first and third biggest cities. The fifth biggest city is nearby Carson, at 55,439 people, making the Burning Man festival one of the most populated cities in Nevada (United States Census Bureau). Black Rock Desert is located 16 miles from the nearest town, Gerlach, 110 miles from Reno, Nevada, and 341 miles from San Francisco, California (Google Maps). The “playa” refers to the place where the festival is held. There is no water on the area designated as the playa. The name is inspired by the alkaline “dust” covering the desert ground. It is a dry lake bed, protected by the National Conservation Area land designation. Black Rock City, LLC is the name of the company that runs the event (The Official DPW Handbook). Black Rock Desert is the name of the area where it takes place (The Official DPW Handbook). The “city” is the name given by those who attend Burning Man, what exists as a festival infrastructure. The city refers to the festival’s occupied surface. The festival is held for a week, on the Labour Day late summer weekend. The infrastructure of the city takes a month to put up and another month to tear down. “I can’t wait to be in the dust,” means that one can’t wait to be back on the playa, also called “home” and “home away from home.” “Out there” is more likely to refer to the world outside of Burning Man, also called the “default world.”

Design and Geography          

The city is set as a crescent, with two miles from the farthest peripheral fence, also called the “trash fence,” to the inner circle, five miles deep if you count the “deep playa,” where lives off-the-grid structures at the opposite of the crescent dip, and about 400 feet from Esplanade, the inner border of the crescent road to the Man, the center of it all (Burning Man). The open circle grid goes from radial 2 O’clock to 10 O’clock and is further divided in crescent grids streets from A to H. The city is host to hundreds of theme camps and villages. At least one other landmark structure—the Temple—rivals in worship that of the Man. Very few attendees camp in what’s called the Walk-in Section. All those attending the festivals, including the organizers, the workers, the medical staff, and the law enforcement agencies are hosted in the city. “Gate,” literally, the entrance gate, is staffed by “greeters,” Will Call ticket booths, and ticket patrols. I will come back to the role of the gate, later in the article. When the gates of the festival opens, everyone comes in, and no participants leave until the last day of the festival.

The Culture

It is a 24-hour non-stop event where participants bring in everything they need except for port-a-potties. There is no commerce inside the fence with the exception of coffee and ice available for purchase at Center Camp. What a participant brings in, the participant brings out. There is an organized cafeteria and shower station for the workers. The policing force has its own quarter. There is even a temporary airport open to all. Burning Man recommences every year, a society with the functional infrastructure of telecommunication, electrical grid, hospital care, roads, law enforcement, transportation, education, entertainment, art and spirituality, food, and shelters.

The “Ten Principles” applies to all the attendants of the festival. These Ten Principles are: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, Immediacy (Burning Man). These principles are important conditions of existence of the festival, and allow for co-habitation of heterogeneous groups of attendees. Susan Leigh Star defines heterogenous as requiring many “different actors and viewpoints” (1989:397). Burners from one and the same village at Burning Man festival might not accord their viewpoints, nor their hobbies and occupations, in the default world.

Labour and Logistic

Leave No Trace is the principle that perhaps is the most important as it applies to this essay. On Leave No Trace depends the perpetuation of the annual event. Black Rock Desert houses a fragile ecosystem. The space is owned by the Bureau of Land Management Nevada (BLM). A typical BLM law enforcement agent does not look like a realtor but rather like a Canadian police officer, with a gun and a permission to arrest unlawful citizens. Citizens of the Burning Man festival, nor Black Rock City, LLC, are above the BLM law. The politics of leasing the area year after year to an event caped at near 80,000 people is a story of its own, including laws and rules that are systemic of partial extortion of capital and partial eco-protection. The BLM is the last actor to check-off the total clean-up list, after the festival is over. If there is one glitter on the dust, the permit for the event to take place the following year will not be re-issued (Burning Man).

Whatever is left on the playa is called Matter Out Of Place (MOOP). MOOP is not necessarily debris. It can be something that is out of place, such as a pair of goggles that fell off a burner’s belt clip, or it can be wood chips, metal shards, saw dust, or a nail (Listen to an Audio Interview). Burners have evolved over the years, setting-up camps specialized in recycling and re-using materials and MOOP. Educating attendees about the Ten Principles is everyone’s responsibility. Being mindful of Leave No Trace is expected of everyone.

“Exodus” is the name given to the last day of the festival when all burners must leave. Exodus event is as epic as the gate opening. “Collexodus” is self-explanatory: at Exodus, out-going festival goers donate their non-perishables in an effort to collect, re-use, and re-distribute the left-over bounty to the crew who will be left behind for the ultimate playa restoration. Some of the Collexodus bounty is re-distributed the following season among working crews. In this activity, the Principle of Decommodification is applied as gift economy.

Art and Infrastructure

Emblematic of the biggest art festival in the world are big, wide, daring wooden structures to be installed and burned within a week. A good number of the metallic and wooden structures are built in the San Francisco Bay Area, and transported for assembly on site. I hope the reader can appreciate how many nails it takes to build such a city.

I attended my first Burning Man festival in 2011, on the theme of Rites of Passage. The experience was transformative. It impacted on my artistic and academic direction. In 2012, in Montreal, I curated a collective, interdisciplinary, and performative event I named The Artist as Shaman. That same year, I returned to Burning Man festival. It was transformative. I unloaded myself from a dead-end love relationship. The theme of 2012 was Cargo Cult. Each of the years I attended Burning Man, I experienced an acute sense of meaning and destiny shift—a sort of Burning Man magic. Each year, I collected a found nail which continues to hold personal meaning and value for me. In 2014, I returned to the festival, yet this time, I joined Burning Man’s Department of Public Works (DPW). I spent one month on site setting up the physical infrastructure of the festival. I don’t remember the theme of the year. I had to check it on Google. It was Caravansary (Burning Man). I don’t believe I had an epiphanic relationship to the theme. My epiphany related to the magic of the desert. Just the desert, before the campers set up, therein altering drastically the scape of the desert. There was an art structure that year named The Embrace. Once more, I collected a found object, again a nail. I now have three nails from the Burning Man festival.

I wrote this essay because I attended the festival and collected found objects. This essay is an attempt to share my found object experience through asking, “Who else cares about a nail?” and, “How is caring about a nail determinant of who the nail is?” To share my story and that of those who shared theirs with me, I employ theories pulling from feminist, anthropological, and performance studies, together creating a replica of what inner monologue might have run through a found nail object’s head as it travelled across boundaries of the many worlds existing at Burning Man festival.


“The Nail in the Man’s Leg” tells the tale of the journey of a nail, the sorts that gets planted in a wooden structure like the Man at Burning Man festival. Pocketed by a festival attendee, a nail artifact shifts dimensions according to the intention of the action in the moment of pocketing the nail. In this part, I follow the theoretical processes of a nail’s dimensional migration via the human encounters that shape one nail’s dimensions, from material and labour, to symbolic and mythical, to labour and embodied dimensions (Dumit 2015)

If, as Diana Taylor explains, “[P]erformance functions as vital acts of transfer, transmitting social knowledge, memory, and a sense of identity” (2003:np), and the reader has understood that Burning Man is a site of extraordinary performances, social knowledge, memory, and identity, how does a nail perform its shifts of dimension? The nail in the Man’s leg, an artifact of the burn, is recognizable by every human having attended the burn, yet not every one will cherish the artifact as a treasure. The nail, nonhuman, an object, cannot perform by itself or travel by its own means. The nail needs relationships of the sorts of mixture of place and event, and the world affiliation of humans populating the place while attending the event to travel. However static, an artifact such as nail nevertheless “challenges” and “influences other performances” by navigating shifts across dimensions (Taylor 2003:np).

Joseph Dumit created a project called, “The Artifact Project,” in which he asked, “How is the world in the artifact?” and, “How is the artifact in the world” (2015)? An object artifact belongs to one or more dimensions depending on its “context and its situatedness” (Dumit 2015). For example, a nail packed in a merchandise box bought at the hardware store inspires a human to perform nailing a nail into something, like a piece of wood, a Man like wooden effigy. This nail belongs to functional material and labour dimensions. The nail that belongs to a symbolic dimension will inspire a human to keep the nail as a mnemonic artifact. In the first example, the nail has an immediate function. In the second example, the nail’s dimension occurs at an immediate moment as well and has an added functional future timeline. The nail becomes an object preserving the past, in the future. In a sense, the dimension of the nail is tied to Taylor’s discourse of artifact as, “always in situ: intelligible in the framework of the immediate environment and issues surrounding them” (2003:np). This means that the performance of the nail is predicated on the compound of its context and its purposeful usage, at that contextual time of encounter with its finder.

What is of interest at this point, is to demonstrate through Star’s Boundary Object Theory (1989; 1999) how a legless nail can move from one world to another and be as able as a human to perform dimension.


Worlds are organized in groups, what Star names “categories” and “classification” (1999), what Diana Taylor names “communities (2003), what María Lugones names “worlds” (1987). In this essay, I use the name “world.” Lugones defines worlds as “possibles” rather than “utopia”, “inhabited at present by some flesh and blood people,” but it can also be populated by “imaginary people, dead people,” and it can also mean “society” (1987:11). Furthermore, Lugones says of herself that if she feels at “ease” in a world, then she knows she is of this world (1987). By integrating the definition of categories/classification/communities/worlds from these scholars, I define here in this essay, that world means a place that feels like home, a place where one is fluent enough to be at ease, and recognizable enough to be accepted as belonging to this world, by other inhabitant of this world. World is also by this compound definition, not existing in fixed, but fluid, evolving, even imaginary, categories and classifications. Worlds, at Burning Man, are at once very real, magical, and of imaginary construct. Yet, one world inhabitant recognizes another of its kind, however fluid and imagined that world may be.

The following question asks, “How do inhabitants of these worlds recognize each other,” and, “What role does a nail play in the making if these worlds?”

What makes the inhabitants of Burning Man festival part of one world is their common goal—attending Burning Man festival to live the Man burn. Leading to this event, the humans, members of this world, share one ecology of independently working worlds.

Worlds Ecology

This essay concerns itself with two classifications of the Burning Man worlds ecologies, categorized as: the DPW, and the burners.

DPW refers to the Department of Public Works. DPW humans set up the city, one month prior to the event. Members of DPW and DPW departments have a playa name. Department of Public Works members are referred to as DPW: “She’s a DPW” or, “She’s DPW.”

A small group of DPWs—the Dark Councilleads as a collective leadership entity (The Official DPW Handbook). The Dark Council, and many DPWs, work full time and year-round planning towards the next event. DPWs are as family. In 2014, Playground was DPW’s manager and their HR representative. Commander Cobra was crewmaster and labour manager for DPW, and as such he headed the daily morning meetings during pre-event on playa, and much more. D.A. was the Playa Restoration Manager, which equates to being the head of MOOP’s world.

DPW’s code of conduct towards outsiders, including the burners, enforces tight lip behaviour, and with good reasons. Upwards to 56,000 burners set up camp every year at the week long Burning Man festival, seeking magic (Burning Man). Thousands more don’t get their tickets in since the event is capped. The unlucky burners await news from home through Instagram, Facebook, and after-event travel tales. The virtual immediacy of Burning Man world’s stories accelerates the risk of sharing backstage information. Burning Man’s magic risks flopping, a sense of wonder taking a dive, just as a card trick performed along side its how-to instructions remove a sense of card trick wonder. Secrecy overflows from ethics and into socially expected DPW behaviours. Although DPW yearly Handbook is readily available as a PDF on the interweb, each DPW sub-departments have their own private culture and secrets. There exists no public archives of DPW. As Danger Ranger, Burning Man historical member and founder of the Black Rock Ranger says, “I could tell you things, but then, I’d have to kill you” (Private conversation with Rusty, December 24, 2015).

Along with the DPW Burning Man during-event pageant, a variety of rites signal levels of belonging to the community. New comers join the family by attending the daily morning meetings, eating together at the cafeteria, and joining the entrance camp, the Ghetto, likely partaking in the epic nightly parties (but never before 5pm, nor on work-call). Specialized work force DPW camp together near their tools. A material dimension contributes to the status of a new-be likely to camp in a tent packing no AC, while the old-timers set up in their air conditioned caravans, accessorized with a turkish rug, their own shade structure, and a sought after vacuum appliance. The dimensional material consecration is the very recognizable DPW black hoodie, and for the vehicle-owners, the DPW license plate. The longer length of time a DPW has spent with the family the more slogan-patches will have been sewn on the hoodie. DPW merchandise is recognizable. A hoodie, out there in the default world, will have you tagged as being part of the DPW family, wherever, and with whoever is also a member of the bigger Burning Man family. Most DPWs call burners “hippies.” The relationship between DPWs and burners runs from DPWs who set themselves apart and away from the festival, and those who love the festival. Conversely, a DPW is often (not in all circles) appreciated as a special contributor to the festival, by especially long-time burners. The DPW hoodie very well may get you a free coffee in the San Francisco Bay Area, and a respectful tilt of the head in Elko, Nevada, I have experienced.

Burners are the participants who set up camp and party on the playa for a week. The entrance alone allows time enough for incoming participants to shift to a collective burner identity. On the day the gate opens at Black Rock city, it takes on average more than twice the time it would to drive from one’s hotel in Reno to one’s camp on the playa roughly ten hours on the day of. After arriving on the actual dust, pre-gate burners used to be allowed to mingle and come in-and-out of their vehicles, embracing each others like long lost family. The ecstasy of having arrived home, coupled with the grueling anticipation rising as vehicles move an inch per minute, made the experience a transformational catharsis.

The entrance gate is a place of ritual and facts, defining the contour of members’ perspective, fleshing out their unique belonging to the group’s shared experience. At the gate proper, past the ticket Will Call booth, there are about ten rows of entries wide. One vehicle at a time, the occupants of it submit to the entrance ritual. Each get a hug by the greeters and are handed the week’s activity booklet. First time participants are labelled “virgin.” They are rounded up by the greeters and elder participants who cheer them on to the beat of the consecrating gong. At the sound of the gong, all within hearing recognize the entrance of a new member into their burner world. At that point, incoming participants have reached and crossed what Bruno Latour calls “passage point,” entering their world of “allies” (Star 1989:389 n.4). Participants are allowed to roll on the alkaline sand, thereby getting their first annual dose of playa dust. The event of the gong and the rolling in the dust together comprise what Star names “an ecological viewpoint” (1989:389). Both newcomer and veteran burners by passing the gate enter one ecology, one world, the ecology of Burning Man’s world. The “flow” of burners passing the gate represents an “alliance” to a “network” that is a complex mixture of place, event, language, worlds and their boundaries (1989:389-390). Enlarging Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory conditions of “alliance,” “flow,” and “network,” best illustrated in Reassembling the Social (2005), Star speaks of a “coherence” as “boundary objects” (1989:390). The gate is a place of coherent networking, not only among those attendees in-coming, but also those already on site who work at handing and handling tickets and greeting burners. Thus having been granted access within the designated perimeters of the festival, not allowed to look back but to be inside for the entire week, members of the Burning Man world re-unite again to reconcile (on a spectrum) whatever differences alive among them in the default world.

But who cares about the nail? “Being at ease” in a world (Lugones 1987) is determined by the event of humans bonding in one world, where the stake of the bond depends on the common understanding of shared facts and acts.

In a matter of speech, language, verbal and non-verbal, feels familiar when we are at ease. Burning Man festival, the burn, the evening when the Man wooden effigy burns down in a great pyrotechnic and fire show, is the moment of ease. Inside the boundaries of Burning Man festival, members perform the unfamiliar with performed familiarity. They perform facts of wearing, speaking, doing, dreaming, moving in codes specific to the Burning Man world. The burning of the Man reconciles with ease the inhabitants of the Burning Man festival worlds. But what of the nail? Who cares about a MOOP nail? How is the kind of care received as a Man burned MOOP nail differ from that care received as a MOOP nail found at the periphery trash fence?

In “Acts of Transfer,” Taylor speaks of meanings shifting over time and through cultures (2003). In her Boundary Object Theory, Star speaks of similar processes using different vocabulary (1989). Star speaks of what Taylor conceives as time and culture, using the image of boundaries. Both Taylor and Star problematize an object that remains as it is, but which, when held in hand by one or another human, shifts dimension. The scale of its shift of dimension can be applied on a spectrum of familiarity to unfamiliarity with that dimension. The dimension of the object can be spoken of in terms of being at ease with the object, or not. What happens when two people of different worlds pick up a MOOP nail? The following aims to explain positions of language and translation as they related to the dimensional shift of a found MOOP object.

Language and Translation

I use language as contemporary dancer Benoît Lachambre does. In Lachambre’s viewpoint, the dream and the language are words which speaks of one and the same idea, which is an idea emerging from space (2015; 2016). In his movement art pedagogy, Lachambre tells his students to create space—inside and outside—to allow for dreams to happen. Lachambre uses both dream and language in ways meant to liberate possibilities for occasions to be, to happen, within the space that a dancer creates. Lachambre speaks of “being choreographed” (2015). Dream and language, in Lachambre’s movement and dance pedagogy, is a potential of choreographic material that is realized, when space is allowed between the dancer and the dancer’s environment, whether the encounter is human or nonhuman. This space is where choreography happens, where relationships are defined within choreographic space.

In the studies of dance and movement art, relationships are dynamic exchange events where communication takes place. Dream and language relate one to one another: human to human, human to nonhuman, human to environment, possibly nonhuman to nonhuman, etc. Language is movement-in-relationship with. In this sense, relationship is not an image of locomotion from point A to point B, but through and within the relationship it creates with point A and point B, with an image emerging. The image in the context of this illustration translates as dream and language. The image in the context of Burning Man is the magic where dimensions form.

The movement of a nail’s shift of dimension requires to be understood by more than one group, for the movement to be a language of relationship. There needs to be a place of meeting along the spectrum of familiarity and unfamiliarity with the dream event. This common language problematic speaks of a necessitation for a translation tool. In Boundary Object Theory (1989; 1999), Star summarizes the problem of translation as argued by Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory (2005), as a “re-interpretation of the concern to fit their own programmatic goals and then re-establish themselves as gatekeepers” (1989:389). Applicable to the event of Burning Man, where attendants, burners, and DPWs re-interpret themselves for the duration of their stay, humans take active part in establishing and re-establishing their world as each prepare to burn the Man. They adhere to (a re-interpretation act), and in turn, reinforce the codes of belonging to that same group (a gatekeeping act).

The problem of translation is crucial to Star’s argument of “reconciliation,” and the Boundary Object Theory (1989; 1999). Star describes a boundary object as:

those objects which both inhabits several intersecting social worlds and satisfy the informational requirements of each of them. . . . They have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable, as a means of translation. (1989:393)

Star continues saying that, “the creation and management of boundary objects is a key process in developing and maintaining coherence across intersecting social words” (1989:393). To illustrate Star’s argument, let me tell you about my encounter with Susy (Personal Interview with the author, November 21, 2015).

When I told my friend Susy I was writing a story about a nail I have kept from Burning Man, she told me about objects she kept from her burn. Enthusiastically, she went to fetch a Ziploc bag containing three pieces of burned wood. These half burned objects sitting on a shelf in her store room wouldn’t be of much interest to people who are outsiders of the Burning Man’s world. Even if the found object doesn’t hold the same value for me (I prefer nails), or for Mattstep (he prefers the ephemeral quality of the experience), or Rusty (he prefers sunrises on the playa), all of us would recognize the wood as an artifact of the burn, an event which has shared meaning. In other words, the three pieces of burned wood speak to us. The burnt wood, a shareable knowledge, makes our worlds—burners and DPWs—intersect. The burnt wood-as-boundary objects reaches across burners and DPWs alike. In this example, the burned pieces of wood “act as anchors,” what Star’s explain as the anchor’s role to maintain the understanding of an object across boundaries (1989:414). The burned wood anchors a mythical dimension of MOOP as a physical reconciliator, creating space in the dream to allow a relationship of shared memories of the event (Star 1989).

At Burning Man, worlds intermingle. Burners and DPWs share worlds in partial relationships with one another. Attendees may have migrated from one world to another. Two worlds will likely meet on the playa, at a pageant, riding an art-car, at a bar, at the emergency hospital, and there attendees will share world stories. In an interview conducted with DPW network engineer Mattstep, he told me stories of gifting found objects to burners (Personal Interview with the author, February 16, 2016). In the ashes of the man burn of 2015, he picked up a sort of screw, a fastener, and gave it to a stranger, an inhabitant of the virgin-burner world. How magical it must have been to be bestowed with such a found object, one that has been structural to the assemblage of the Man! Mattstep acted with the awareness of a language specific to the virgin-burner world. His generosity towards that individual happened upon encounter of their two worlds. Had the virgin-burner not been around, Mattstep would have pocketed and discarded the fastener adequately.

Beyond the human, beyond the cyborg, Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto”’s arguments fit the nail story in addressing objects (1991). Haraway says, “[I]ndeed myth and tool mutually constitute each other” (1991:164). Crossing boundaries, the nail’s tool dimension is disassembled, shifting away from its head in the wood, reassembled as MOOP or treasure. Lying on the playa, its tool body is constructed by the language of the collective from which the individual who pockets the nail associates with. The nail and the human enter an intimate relationship in the space created by pocket proximity. The mythical context of the burn spills over and into the collective world of one, in the previous illustration, the fastener enters the virgin-burner world. The burned pieces of wood for Suzy, and the three nails I have kept, are both tool and myth. Mattstep, the virgin-burner, Susy, and I understand the language of the found object as first the language of tool—its original function.

The nail in the Man’s leg crosses boundaries, accessing worlds. Leave No Trace is lived by each attendee in a different ways: the nail as MOOP is picked up, pocketed, and discarded adequately; the nail as an object capturing the charge of the event, the nail as a reminder of having been at the event, the nail found in a pile of ashes is picked up, pocketed, and preserved in a Ziplock bag and labelled, Burning Man 2011.

Another way of framing translation is to speak of a capacitation for nail MOOP to traverse shared language, trading languages across boundaries. A burner learns its world’s language by attending the event. The burner will have been exposed to the language while preparing the camp. Montreal’s camp Midnight Poutine remains active in the default world though community events such as Burners Potluck (Midnight Poutine at Burning Man; Brûleurs de Montréal Burners). Further organization is needed to pool some money for shared infrastructures, for example the kitchen, the poutine ingredients, and the shade structures. During the process of preparing the camp for Burning Man, a burner will be speaking its world’s language. It is during the event itself, in the place itself, that language will sink in totally. In that world, the feeling of existing as a burner is at its peak. In that world, the burner is exposed to her or his language, and to similar yet different languages. Susan Foster speaks about “feeling the world as an act of knowledge,” which points to the necessitation of a translation skill set (1995:9). A translation skill set can be an individual process formed and lived with ease, and/or extended as a collective skill set building, until lived with ease. Translation is a method of knowledge sharing that bridges two worlds into one shared understanding.

This shared knowledge is the language of the Ten Principles as a feeling. As a nail in the Man’s leg, the feeling is an act of acknowledging an artifact’s dimension. Having the nail in hand for a moment is an act of experiencing nail: remembering that moment which is not the nail but something happening at the moment of the nail-in-hand, recording the nail-in-hand event, and/or pocketing the nail for future disposal or future adulation. The condition of creating space for memories translates as the reconciliator of the experience of ephemerality, the activator of the Immediacy Principle. Leave No Trace Principle transports the experience of the nail from material to mythical and/or labour and embodied. Whereas I pocked a nail, for Mattstep, the memory of having been on the playa is enough to carry the magic of Burning man in the default world (Personal Interview with the author, February 16, 2016). For Rusty, living the sunrise every morning on the playa is the memory he carries in his default world. He carries these memories in his imagination and as pixels—images of sunrises shared through his Facebook account. The physicality of the nail is not at the center of the experience. Rather, the embedded memories— remembered or imagined—are at the center of the experience of the nail encounter.

It is the relationship between the the desert place and the Burning Man event that allows the magic of nail-as-myth to happen. Relationships created through MOOP nail create dream—the shared knowledge of a common language with humans, desert, and object (Haraway 1991).

Autoethnography of a Nail

How does a nail begin its story? Why is a nail found in so many burners’ treasure boxes? How does a nail go from hardware store to sacred pouch, thus transforming relationship to, and the identity of a nail, from commodity to dream?

I am a DPW insider by way of having worked one season, in 2014. I come having been recommended by a prior DPW who had membership entrance into the mightiest of all camps, Heavy Equipment And Transpo (HEAT). Being socially admitted to HEAT immediately allowed me access to unconditional recognition. Just like that, I became part of the DPW family. Many HEAT members are founder members of the DPW. They helped grow the DPW into what it is, from what it was (The Official DPW Handbook). They have epic stories to share, and un-shareable secrets to speak of. Most of them have accumulated scars from the many years working on the playa. Their hoodies, many hoodies, are covered with slogan-patches. I was part of the circle of DPW. I stood out like a sore thumb, like the rookie wearing my brand new DPW hoodie.

I had planned for this essay to ask DPWs if they would be interested in sharing their story of the Man through a possible relationship they have, and/or had, with a nail, or other MOOP found object. I quickly came to consider three issues deterrent to information gathering: (1) Restricted access to the DPWs involved; (2) The unbelievable tale of a nail did not appeal to potential interviewees; (3) The DPW has no archives that I could dig in to supplement the lack of first-hand accounts.

Admittedly, my shiny first-year insider badge is pretty thin. I had secured four interviews in the months of November and December, calling out to DPWs outside of the purchasing, building, and firefighting departments, the original boundaries of my study design. None of the interviews came through on time. I was able to interview Mattstep, DPW network engineer, on the deadline day of my final revision draft. This failure to connect with insider participants forced me to revisit the structure of my article, and the sources of my story. “The Nail in the Man’s Leg” shifted from an oral genealogy, to a theoretical and autoethnographic interweaving, pulling from feminist, anthropological, science technology, and performance studies.

For the love of story telling, I re-tell in the following, the tale of a “The Nail in the Man’s Leg,” as lived by Rusty, Mattstep, Susy, and myself.

I met Rusty while living at HEAT, in 2014. Rusty is a friend. I have been accepted as a family member of Rusty’s world. Rusty is part of DPW Transpo crew. He trucks in merchandise, such as a bunch of nails, from Reno to the Man. Rusty is an original founder of the DPW. I was excited to ask him about his found objects treasure box, and his possible relationship to his nail cargo. I asked Rusty if he had any nails stories for me, and he wrote me this poem. I asked him if he had a nail treasure and he said no. His treasures are sunrises on the playa, living things, and his many cowboy hats.

Cowboy Poetry by Leo Rusty Johnson

Have you heard the story of journey to the flames here’s a story of a journey kinda the same. [s]tarts along ways away in a mill iron ore smelters to steel hammered n forged hardened and strong transformed in to nails that’d be used to build houses and art that’s how r story ties in for the nails of steel r used to construct our man in black rock city that’s right Burningman. A DPW hand grabs the nail hammers straight n true in to the leg of the man to stand for all to see strong n hard winds n dust thousands of people admiring some say worship but the story’s just begun for our nail ten days of dessert trials it’s true then comes burn night. The crowd surrounds our man fire works began flames dance bright n the man he fights stands long and loud the crowd anticipates the fall as pieces fall the nails hold on the wood turns weak n gives the fire goes on man falls in to a heap the crowd on their feet rushes forward to the heat. Party till dawn at was once the man[‘]s feat[feet] but our story isn’t complete a burner from who knows where wants a m[e]mento of their time here grabs our nail n some ash to show of the part of history he has to show it travels back home where ever it might be to tell the story of burning man for all he sees. (Personal Interview with author, September 25, 2015)

Remembering Memories Versus Imagining Memories

Rusty did not say “for all to see,” but “for all he sees.” Soyini Madison asks in her book Critical Ethnography, “[D]oes that mean those truths or realities do not exist simply because we do not see them” (2012:89)? Rusty’s response to Madison’s question is a poetic genealogy of a nail, the ease of travel of a nail in the Man’s leg, from its packing box at the hardware store, to magical treasure as a found object in a mega art festival, to its likely resting place in a pile of trash. Although Rusty’s account of a nail is an imagined memory in that it addresses my needs to build a narrative of a nail as Burning Man consecrated artifact, the poem does just that, addressing my needs. In an article discussing “Feminist Standpoint Theory,” “Situated Knowledges,” and the authors’ argument of a “situated imagination,” Marcel Stoetzler and Nira Yuval-Davis argue, “something is ‘imagined’ or ‘imaginary’ does not imply its falseness; the point is how things are imagined” (2002:324). The boundaries between facts and fiction of a nail’s dimension overlap, as memories are remembered and imagined.

The Tale of the Nail

A nail is labelled as hardware, comes in various sizes, packaged in boxes for industrial orders averaging thousands of nails per box. Let’s call the nail common nail 6D 2” USD$157.50 per package of 2730 nails. This is the industrial nail Purchasing department will order, Transpo department will coordinate for delivery, and Joe the Builder’s crew will hammer in.

Most likely, common nail 6D 2” is used is such unpolished work as shade structure, populating islets of reliefs on the scorching playa. Common nail 6D 2” is the toad of the family, while screw is the fancier frog, giant staples the bull frog, and fastener is the bull’s eye of all hardware. A wooden structure such as the Man, built to burn to the ground in just about two hours, is often engineered with as little exterior attachments as possible, limiting weight and debris. Nails are there, though, and finding a nail in the pile of said burned Man is the climax of this insider story.

In the genealogy of “The Nail in the Man’s Leg,” common nail 6D 2” is as generic as an artefact gets, not yet arte, just fact. It is a tool not yet at the mythical dimension. The mythical construction of the nail has yet to begin. The DPW builder crew, headed by head builder and Burning Man DPW founder Joe the Builder, relates to the nail with detachment. That is, until a DPW not wearing her/his work boots steps on a nail. Common nail 6D 2” generates a layer of meaning, inclusive of the experience of hospital visit, medical intervention, and minor surgery. The experience compound bequests a change of the nail’s name. Let’s go from common nail 6D 2” to god damn nail.

DPW skips to the one hospital on location during pre-event. There follows a prompt assessment: wiggling of the nail and asked, “[O]n a scale of one to five, how much does it hurt?” says the emergency medical technician (EMT) on shift. The EMT inserts four needles in the foot, the anesthetic shots, following with scalpel knife surgery, more needle work, a glob of antibiotic gel, gauze bandage, bonus pills and a prescription for more antibiotics. DPW builder replays the story mentally, partly busy remembering, mostly busy imagining what job will be assigned to a temporarily disabled DPW, and curses the god damn nail. Meanwhile, for the EMT at the Rampart Urgent Care, it’s just another nail common-injury.

Fast forward six days and nights of transformative festivities into the festival. The Man is erect in the middle of the playa, set within a row of spires pointing to another giant structure to burn the day after the Man, the Temple. On Saturday night, the city is literally on fire. LED strung hippy burners ride bright bicycles or hop on art cars competing in brightness and loudness. Some minor wooden structures have gone up in flames the night before. Metal work structures spew meter-long flames.

People gather around the Man: there’s the circle of fire dancers where sober fire-officers and law enforcers patrol. Everybody else outside that circle has dropped LSD; those who haven’t feel the vibe. The music is louder than the ears can take. If per chance two people meet, unplanned, it is called destiny. Dust devils whirl. The crowd is on edge. After a show nobody but the first row can see but everybody feels, the Man raises its wooden arms — a sign the massive party is about to go down. Extreme pyrotechnic work starts. Two hours of pure ecstasy cumulate in a pile of ashes. The security perimeter eventually cracks open. Those valiant souls who awaited this very symbolic rush to the burning ashes walk at a ceremonial paced-down ritualist clockwise circle around the ambers until they are cool enough to pick and pocket. This is the spot to find red hot The Nail in the Man’s Leg nails.

Bill Brown, a critical theorist who popularized the “Thing Theory,” explains such an event leading to the pile of ashes as a “metaphysical presence, the magic by which objects become values, fetishes, idols, and totems” (2001:5). Magic does not stop at the ashes. Thousands of people take over the night in what can be best described as the popular saying, “[W]hat happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

Common nail 6D 2” has transformed into the nail in the Man’s leg. For the following two days, festival goers will gather in small groups, tossing the remnants of the Man, fishing for a prized memento. Susy, a 2009 burner I interviewed at her home in Toronto, showed me three pieces of burned wood, one of which has a hole where a nail is missing (Personal Interview with the author, November 21, 2015). Susy talked about the energy embedded in the artifact. The energy is a condition of the dream, that common language shared among members of the Burning Man world.

This common language is not exclusive to those remembering the memory. Wannabe burners, those who have yet to experience Burning Man, can imagine what it must be like. The artifact is a fact to the fiction. Its memories are constructs of worlds and boundaries around what’s embodied as remembered and what’s imagined. In the default world, the common language is the, “me too, I have a nail from Burning Man!”

The Nail Loses Its Magic

And then, there’s the bunch of nails that even the most feverish burner hasn’t picked from the ashes. The wind has scattered micro debris along miles of eroding soil. The burners have packed and gone. DPWs are packing and organizing exit strategies. Only the DPW Playa Restoration (Resto) crew led by D.A. is allowed on the playa, for the cleanup (Burning Man). However excruciatingly exhausting on the body and the mind, Playa Restoration is crucial for the renewal of the event. So emotionally and physically taxing is the work, it is not surprising that those DPWs I have talked to who have kept an object from the Burning Man event have found the object post-event during Resto.

There is roughly a month left after Exodus to get the playa as clean dust until the BLM rolls in for the final Leave No Trace verdict. It’s hot. Most DPWs hanging out for Resto are hard core lifers. Extreme weather, scorching hot in the day time, freezing cold at night, the alkaline sand transforms a foot in affectionately called “playa foot,” a stump of painfully cracked hardened skin, and that’s the hands too. Nostrils are so dried out by now, the best thing in the word is sniffing melting ice cubes. Lips are chapped beyond foreseeable repair. Lungs are sandpaper lined but many of the crew members still smoke. Whiskey and bad beer hangovers don’t affect anymore. Living quarters are reduced to shared dorms. Food is what’s left-over from the Exodus’s Collexodus: sprayable cheese, salty chips, coconut water, etc. Thirty minutes of dehydration means death.

Year after year, D.A.’s crew manages the impossible. Although participants are required to bring out what they bring in, the urgency of a rushed Exodus results in a number of unfortunate soiled camps. Nature adds to the chaos, with sand storms and wind blowing, the fragility of the soil, the plague of pin-head sized glitters, the freak rain and water most years, caking, covering, and blowing micro debris all the way to the highway. Crew members are lined up at arms length, pacing one step at a time, scanning the dusty soil for shiny bits of broken glass and astro turf lint. A different kind of magic sets in. There exists no longer the augmented magic of thousands of humans performing Burning Man, the over-stimulating fabricated noise, colours, and explosions of LED. There exists the harsh desert, the sand storms, the fatigue, and the exhilarating awareness of being in such a place. There is also the reality that Black Rock Desert in early September spells hostile. Black Rock Desert then is a place of seasonal shifts, at time where organic matter makes it or dies of exposure from the elements (Listen to an Audio Interview). There is also the reality of human mental meltdown. Magic lays less in the material dimension as it does in the labour and embodied dimensions. It’s the kind of magic that is remembered as having been there and survived. It’s the kind of magic that feeds a mythical dimension, a repository of tales to tell over the next bonfire. D.A. speaks of “closing the circle” and “bringing the goodness home” (Listen to an Audio Interview). All that goodness is language that carries dreams of the mythical dimension back to the default world.

At the time of “closing the circle,” in its climactic demise, a nail becomes a bunch o’nails on a magnetic broom.


While dimensions co-habit during the event via interrelationships of tension and generosity, there is a macro dimension of being at Burning Man, which places all attendants as being at Burning Man, rather than being in the default world. The dimension of a nail object shifts from one human encounter to another human encounter. The significance of encounters at Burning Man become anchors as Situated Knowledge (Star 1989; Haraway 1988). For Mattstep, the myth of Burning Man, its magical dimension, does not reside in the found object. In his world, the stuff that makes the myth of his world, his DPW magic, is the ephemeral quality of being on the playa. Nevertheless, his generous act of gifting demonstrates that Mattstep is aware of the dimension of mythical language of the virgin-burner’s world. Matt speaks a common language with the virgin-burner. He operates in a caring and generous relationship.

So I will close with a confession. I would not have written this essay had I known I was about to put in discussion so many theories addressing the dimensional performance of a found object and its fortuitous human-nonhuman encounter, taking place in an animated twenty-four hours per day debauchery. Originally my story was quite simple. I asked, “what’s a nail object in somebody’s hand? Can I move its dance, i.e. dance the nail, and know its story?” My artistic field is movement performance, while my academic expertise develops as performance nonhuman ethnography. I wrote the story from my perspective, questioning kinks and curves I came up to, with arguments that I lived, yet had been coined, speaking of theories I had not encountered. It turns out quite a lot of interest is dedicated to the serious studies of nonhumans, objects, and language relationships.

To tie it back to the compound artifact/archive theories of Dumit and Taylor, “context and the situatedness” (2015; 2013) play a key role in the perpetuation of the festival magic year after year. The nail, the Man, the gate’s gong, the sunrise on the playa, and the black hoodie shape Burning Man’s encounters as artifact memories.

There are unifying points in the story of “The Nail in the Man’s Leg”: (1) People who attend Burning Man share the event of burning the man at Burning Man; (2) People who attend Burning Man Leave No Trace, ie: pick up that nail off the ground. There are personal stories at Burning Man, and even though the world of the Pink Gym camp and the world of the Thunderdome camp are unlikely to mistake one’s event for the other’s, the Radical Inclusion Principle exists as a lived rule: DPW Mattstep travels worlds, gifting a virgin-burner a found object.

In conclusion, sometimes the nail has no special meaning and is just left there in a pile of ashes, waiting to be picked up by the Resto crew. But always, this non meaning is an occasion of meaning, for a relationship that has no meaning is no less one of dimensional relationships that tells a story.

Works Cited

Brown, Bill. 2001. “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry 28(1):1–22.

Brûleurs de Montréal Burners. Facebook, Accessed March 21, 2016.

Bureau of Land Management Nevada. United States Department of the Interior., Accessed November 10, 2015.   

Burkes, Summer. 2015. “You Can’t Say ‘Cleanup’ on the Radio.” Blog. September 24., Accessed 10 November 2015.

Burning Man., Accessed November 10, 2015.

Curley, John. 2015. “Burning Man Takes a Look Inside.” Blog. Journal Burningman. November 19., Accessed November 19, 2015.

The Official DPW Handbook. 2015. The Department of Public Works, Black Rock City, Nevada., Accessed November 10, 2015.

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“Man Eaters”: the myth of wild Africa

by Kendall Artz
Undergraduate Student | Hampshire College, Massachusetts, U.S.A.


The stuffed “man-eating” lions of Tsavo, Kenya are one of the Field Museum of Natural History’s most popular exhibits. However, in Kenyan museums the story of the lions is nowhere to be found. The narrative of these “man-eaters” (who ate over 100 people) and the heroism of the British soldier who killed the lions and rescued the railway seems to be primarily a Western construction. This story of the modernity of a British railroad held up by a savage wilderness intrigues audien“ces even today. I will discuss how that story plays into the popular belief of a wild, but conquerable, Africa.

Key words: colonialism, museum displays, taxidermy, safari, first-person narratives

Publication Information
Volume 3, Issue 1 (2017)


“Man-Eaters of Tsavo”, Photo: Cassie Fancher, provided by author.

Between the towering Grecian pillars of the entrance to the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History, through the brightly flashing ticket booths, past the snarling skeleton of a T. Rex affectionately named “Sue”, lies the entrance to the Field Museum exhibit titled Mammals of Africa. By following the path worn into the swampy-green carpet by thousands of feet every year, visitors wander down serpentine, shadowy hallways filled with the taxidermied corpses of dozens of species of buffalo, gazelles, and wildebeest. The animals, stuffed to the brim with every possible preservative, stare back at onlookers with eyes made of coloured marbles. Behind the glass of hundreds of display cases an Edenic variety of forms crouch, climb, snarl, and swim, each one carrying on as if it had never been cut open and stitched back together. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this lifeless zoo –or more accurately, library– is that every one of the hundreds of animals on display, as well as the countless specimens the museum keeps in storage, tells its own unique story. Visitors are made especially aware of this fact upon arrival at the last display in the exhibit. At first the exhibit’s grand finale seems an underwhelming sight; the case is relatively barren compared to the jungle greenery that grows and twists around every other scene. The animals, two lions, are maneless and small, and their skin appears to be stretched tightly over their stuffed insides like a poorly-fitted suit. Despite their relatively unimpressive stature, visitors crowd around the display to read the riveting story of how these two lions, called “The Man-Eaters of Tsavo”, killed and ate 135 railway workers in what is now Kenya. There is something unique about this story, which separates it from all the other displays in the exhibit. The story of their attacks and eventual capture by a British Army Colonel named John Patterson has entertained American audiences since the lions’ arrival at the Field Museum in 1925. Since then, Patterson has become a legend in his own right. He has been compared to both Hercules and St. George the dragon-slayer. His story has become entwined with that of the lions, receiving international acclaim and adaptation into other mediums, including a blockbuster Hollywood film. But despite the lions’ popularity at the Field, the websites for major Kenyan museums and parks give little to no mention of the “Man-Eaters of Tsavo”. The story seems to be primarily a construction by and for British and American audiences. Playing into a preconception of Africa as a wild and dangerous land, Colonel Patterson’s description of his exploits, as well as the bodies of the lions themselves, have painted a picture that appeals to a British and American idea of Kenya and Africa as a whole. Both Patterson’s account and the display at the Field Museum in Chicago serve to craft a narrative of Africa as a wild land, ready for conquest.

Patterson’s book, The Man-Eaters Of Tsavo (1907) was the definitive account of Africa at the beginning of the 20th century, building upon earlier colonial travel and adventure texts set in the African continent, as well as those set in the Americas and Asia.[1] It quickly gained recognition as an adventure story for young men and something of a “how-to” book for hunters. The book described not only Patterson’s trials with the lions, but also gave vivid descriptions of big game, railway construction, and Patterson’s interactions with the “natives”. It became widely acclaimed by both the British and American press as the “Best of Lion Stories” (1909:6). One newspaper asserted that, “No boy’s book of imaginary adventures published this season is likely to make its reader hold his breath more than this modest but veracious record” (“The Man-Eaters of Tsavo” 1907:459–460). The book’s thick description and tales of danger appealed to younger readers, as well as reinforced ideas that Africa was a land of mystery and wonder, whose environments and people were radically different than those of Great Britain. The lions themselves represented an untamed wilderness that many British and American city-dwellers had never experienced. Newspapers played on this confrontation between industry and nature, as one paper wrote, “The two man-eaters . . . waged a savage, though intermittent warfare against the railway and all connected with it at Tsavo, and indeed, in the end actually succeeded in putting a stop to all railway works for a period of three weeks” (1907:23). Another emphasized the danger that workers faced even within the comfort of their beds, “[The lions] forced their way into camp, entered tents and huts, and night after night, in pitch darkness, the camp was aroused by the screams of men being carried away” (“Lion Attacks” 1912:6). These descriptions added to the growing fame of Patterson’s story and attracted adventure-seekers and big game hunters from the U.S. and Great Britain.

Patterson and the Uganda Railway

In May 1898, Colonel John Henry Patterson arrived at the port in Mombasa on the east coast of what is now Kenya. Patterson was confident in his abilities as both an engineer and a hunter, and was eager to learn about the exotic Africa he had heard so much about. His biographer describes him as having “the gift of the gab, a lively sense of humour, a friendly nature, and an air of command, reinforced perhaps, by the Bible he carried in one hand and, no doubt, by a gun he held in the other” (Brian 2008:7). He would be able to make good use of both his Bible and his gun over the coming months in Kenya. The other talents described by his biographer would also prove useful in his job as a bridge engineer for the Uganda Railroad.[2] Patterson was assigned to build a bridge over the unpredictable and flood-prone Tsavo River. He was selected due in a large part to his experience building bridges in British-controlled India. The experiences he had in India obviously affected his first impressions of Kenya, as he wrote, “Contrary to my anticipation, everything looked fresh and green, and an oriental glamour of enchantment seemed to hang over the island [of Mombasa]” (Patterson 1907:1).

This “oriental glamour of enchantment” would become something that Patterson constantly referred back to, especially as he compared his ordeal with the Tsavo lions with his experiences hunting tigers in India. Here, Edward Said’s discussion of “Orientalism” may help to explain Patterson’s attitudes and actions. Said wrote that, “Knowledge of the Orient [defined by Said as a European conception of the East], because generated out of strength, in a sense creates the Orient, the Oriental, and his world” (1977:4). In Patterson’s case, Kenya was an example of the Orient, and his existence there necessarily took a position of power and paternalism. Patterson therefore, was unable to view Kenya, the railway workers, or Africa more broadly, through any other lens than as that of a European colonizer, and throughout the Man-Eaters of Tsavo Patterson’s “Orientalist” viewpoint would color his writing again and again, especially when it came to Britain’s role as both a colonizer and protector of Kenya’s wealth and people.

The Uganda Railway was central to Patterson’s and Britain’s ideas of their role within Kenya. Being built shortly before World War I, it served to solidify Britain’s dominance over the region, and to secure resources which were being threatened by German colonization of the same area. The railway’s construction was also couched in a rhetoric of the need for African progress and protection. As Charles Miller—author of The Lunatic Express—states, the railway was meant to aid not only Britain’s immediate interests, but also to determine “the future of Uganda” (1971:253). From Miller’s perspective the railway would help to civilize the continent and bring prosperity in its wake. He claims that the railroad served as “a visible expression of British humanitarianism” (255). The perceived humanitarian mission of the railroad is seen repeatedly throughout Patterson’s narrative. He views the lions not only as a threat to himself and the railway workers, but also as a threat to the civilizing mission that the railroad represents. It should be emphasized that from the perspective of Patterson, the Uganda Railway management, and Great Britain, the killings were not a tragedy due merely to the loss of life, but rather that every delay they caused in the building of the railroad was longer the region went without Britain’s guiding hand. This is the confrontation described in The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, not one of the lions against the workers, but a battle between the savage wilderness of Africa and the modern civilization of Great Britain.

“The Reign of Terror”

Shortly after arriving at the Tsavo River where the bridge was to be built, Patterson started to hear stories of “man-eating” lions that had killed several workers. He initially dismissed the deaths as the fault of other workers, concluding that “some scoundrels from the gangs had murdered them for the sake of their money” (Patterson 1907:10). However it would quickly become apparent that these were not isolated incidents. Two male lions had developed a taste for the railway workers, repeatedly sneaking into tents under the cover of night and dragging unfortunate victims into the brush, where their screams could be heard across the camps. Patterson set about to dispatch the lions quickly and with as few work delays as possible. He began to spend his nights perched in various trees around the sites of previous lion attacks, only to hear screams coming from another part of the camp as the lions continually evaded him. In fact, they were so successful in their hunts that Patterson speculated that, “[The lions appeared], to have an extraordinary and uncanny faculty of finding out our plans beforehand, so that no matter in how likely or how tempting a spot we lay in wait for them, they invariably avoided that particular place and seized their victim for the night from some other camp” (1907:12). Patterson was frequently impressed by the intelligence of the lions, and both he and the rest of the workers began to believe that there was some supernatural quality about them. This was reinforced by the numerous close calls Patterson had while hunting them. Once he had one of the lions in his sights within several yards of himself, only to have his gun misfire and the lion escape (47). Additionally, the lions were enormous[3] and maneless,[4] their unusual appearance lending further credence to the belief that they were something supernatural. The workers took to calling the lions “devils”, and believed that they were immune to human weapons. Patterson himself often refers the lions as “demons” and “monsters” (12, 17). In attempting to express the fear that gripped the railway camp, Patterson writes:

Their methods then became so uncanny and their man-stalking so well-timed and so certain of success, that the workmen firmly believed that they were not real animals at all, but devils in lions’ shape. . . . They were quite convinced that the angry spirits of two departed native chiefs had taken this form in order to protest against a railway being made through their country. (20)

It can be guessed that Patterson also felt some of this same “superstition” about the lions. He admits in his book that although he believes the workmen were much more afraid and irrational than himself, that the lions “certainly . . . seemed to bear charmed lives” (47). These quotes suggest that Patterson may not have been as confident of his abilities to capture the lions himself and also that he may have ascribed some of his own doubts to that of the more “superstitious” workers.

Word quickly spread that two “demons” were terrorizing a British railway. The railroad managers, in an effort to stop the attacks, offered a 200 rupee reward to anyone shooting a lion within one mile of railway track on either side of the line. As a result of this and also the notoriety that would result from bringing down the notorious “man-eaters”, dozens of big-game hunters flocked to Tsavo (Patterson 2004:24). They all left empty-handed however, as the lions proved too elusive. Meanwhile the attacks continued. Over the course of nine months the lions killed a documented 28 railway workers and an unknown amount of other local inhabitants, including porters and “gun-boys” who weren’t officially employed by the railway. The exact total of their kills is up for debate. Patterson claims that 135 people were killed by the lions, although how he came to this conclusion is unknown. However studies of the lions’ hair and skin have suggested that it is more likely that they only consumed around 35 humans, not including the people they killed but didn’t eat (Yeakela et al. 2009:19,040-19,043).[5]

Regardless of the total amount of casualties, it is clear that the lions had a large impact on the railway, the workers, and Patterson. Hundreds of workers fled the construction camp, throwing themselves in front of a supply train until it slowed enough to jump on. Then they left Tsavo and its “devils” far behind them. As a result, construction of the Tsavo bridge came to a complete halt. What was expected to be a quick and relatively inexpensive bridge-building project was delayed for nearly three weeks. In the meantime, Patterson was clearly frustrated and the camp and its inhabitants were totally at the mercy of the lions’ attacks. He dubbed this time the “Reign of Terror” (1907:33). If the papers were correct and this was truly a battle between the railroad and the lions, the lions were winning handily.

Part of Patterson’s narrative during the “Reign of Terror” also emphasized the great personal danger he put himself in. Although his book is written several years after Patterson’s time in Kenya, a strong sense of fear can still be felt in his descriptions of the numerous close calls he experienced with the lions. This feeling of personal danger is something that was central to the narrative that Patterson was creating. In order for the British humanitarian efforts to come across in the story, every occasion in which Patterson willingly put himself in danger to kill the lions needed to be emphasized. It should not be forgotten that Patterson, as a British engineer for the Uganda railway, probably had the least to fear from the lions. His shelter was the most well protected by bomas, or large thorn fences, and he nearly always carried a gun, something that saved his life on several occasions. The workers on the other hand weren’t allowed to be armed in the camp except with permission from railway executives like Patterson. Understanding Patterson’s relative safety compared to the workers should not however, dismiss the immediate danger he experienced in his first-hand experiences with the lions. Instead it dispels the myth that Patterson was somehow protecting the railway workers by putting himself in harms way.

In one of these dangerous encounters, Patterson and the camp doctor spent the night at the site of one of the previous lion attacks. They lay out in a covered goods wagon so that if the lions attacked they would only be able to come from the front. Late that night they heard a large body land softly inside their boma fence. One of the lions was close, but in the pitch darkness Patterson and the doctor couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of their faces. It was the closest Patterson had been to being able to shoot one of the lions that had been terrorizing the camps, but it was also the closest he had been to being the lions’ prey. Nothing happened right away, and for two hours the two men sat in silence, knowing that the lion was mere feet away but being unable to see it. After two hours of agonizing silence, Patterson began to discern a dark object moving stealthily around the wagon, in his excitement he turned to tell the doctor what he saw. At that very moment the lion emerged from the darkness and sprung at the wagon. Patterson describes the sheer luck that saved him and the doctor from the lion’s lunging claws:

“The lion!” I shouted, and we both fired almost simultaneously–not a moment too soon, for in another second the brute would assuredly have landed inside the wagon. As it was, he must have swerved off in his spring, probably blinded by the flash and frightened by the noise of the double report which was increased a hundredfold by the reverberation of the hollow iron roof of the truck. (20)

The next morning, Patterson found a bullet lodged in the ground inches from the lion’s paw-print. It was one of his best opportunities to capture one of the lions and he would not have another chance for several months.

In early December, more than eight months after his arrival at Tsavo, and with railway construction still at an almost complete halt, Patterson would get another shot at one of the “man-eaters”. At this point he had been spending most of his nights perched in trees straining his eyes against the darkness, and his days constructing traps to capture the “dreadful monsters”. One night he had his workers construct a large wooden scaffolding called a machan next to the body of a mule that the lions had only partially eaten. As there were no trees to sit in near the mule, he was determined to stay in the machan that night. He believed that the lions would come back to finish their meal. Late after midnight Patterson was delighted to hear the sound of a large animal moving in the thorny bushes near the body of the mule. His delight quickly turned to fear however, as he slowly realized that the lion had noticed him, and that it had begun to hunt him as it had so many workers before. He writes, “the hunter became the hunted . . . the lion began stealthily to stalk me! For about two hours he horrified me by slowly creeping round and round my crazy structure, gradually edging his way nearer and nearer” (48). For a time Patterson had an uneasy standoff with the lion, until it suddenly exposed itself directly underneath the machan, readying itself to pounce. Patterson fired his gun directly into the lion’s side causing it to let out “a most terrific roar” (49) and it leapt away into the thorny underbrush where Patterson could hear it growling and crashing through the thorns. He fired repeatedly into the thicket where he could hear it trying to escape until the movement and then its growls stopped entirely. The next morning Patterson put together a crew to search for the remains of the lion. Soon they found it dead, still with a snarl on its face. Although the workers celebrated with “an especially wild and savage dance” (50). Patterson writes that he allowed himself only a brief moment of relief before reminding himself that a second lion was still on the loose.

Patterson’s description of how he positioned himself in relation to the railway workers is telling of the rest of the book. Whereas he writes the workers as superstitious, flighty, and irrational, in his own internal dialogue he comes across as both brave and logical, never losing sight of his duty to protect and think for the workers, who he calls his “children” (50). This dynamic will be discussed later in the paper.

The second lion made its presence felt in the days following the first lion’s death. It continued to prowl the camp sites looking for easy prey and any joy that Patterson may have felt due to killing the first “man-eater” quickly dissipated. There was every reason to believe that the second lion would prove just as elusive as the first, and Patterson had only been able to kill one lion in nine months of attempts. However, just a few weeks after he shot the first lion, Patterson would get a shot at the second. He and his “gun-boy” named Mahina were spending the night in a tree by the site of one of the lion’s previous attacks. The tree didn’t have much cover around it and before long Patterson could see the lion arrive and begin to stalk them, moving through the underbrush and trying its best to remain hidden. Patterson writes that the lion’s stalk “showed that he was an old-hand at the terrible game of man-hunting” (54). As the lion got closer however, Patterson was able to get a clear shot, and fired a bullet into the lion’s chest. The bullet, although obviously wounding the lion, didn’t kill it, and it immediately turned and fled. Patterson and Mahina waited until daybreak and then set off in pursuit of the lion. Before walking a very great distance they could hear its growling through the bushes. Patterson fired a shot in the direction of the growls and the lion instantly came bounding out into the open snarling and charging at Patterson and Mahina. Patterson stood and fired, knocking the lion down with the first shot, but it wasn’t killed and was quickly back on its feet and resumed its charge. At that point, Patterson writes, “The terror of the sudden charge was too much for Mahina, and . . . [he was] well on his way up a tree. In the circumstances there was nothing to do but follow suit” (55). If it hadn’t been for the fact that one of Patterson’s shots had apparently broken the lion’s hind leg, both Patterson and Mahina would likely have been followed into the tree and killed. As it was, the lion was unable to reach the two of them and Patterson continued to fire down onto the lion until it fell to the ground, apparently dead. Patterson climbed down to inspect his kill, at which point the lion jumped up and attempted to charge Patterson again. Mahina came to the rescue firing two shots into the lion’s head, which finished him for good. The lion, even in its dying moments, “died gamely, biting savagely at a branch which had fallen to the ground” (54).

Why Lions?

The story of the Tsavo lions not only serves to tell a thrilling narrative of danger and adventure, it also has become embedded in the American and British perception of Africa and the place of colonial powers within the continent. But why are lions the central focus of this narrative? What makes the fact that these killers were lions so important to this story? Part of the reason certainly has to do with the fact that the lions hunted down, and then ate, their victims. The intentionality of the approach has consequences for the ways the lions are imagined. In his book Monsters of God, David Quamman writes that large cats “were part of the psychological context in which our sense of identity as a species arose” (2003:1). The idea of humans as prey is something that is both terrifying and thrilling and has given an air of the sensational to this story. But it is not simply the danger of this story that has made it so popular and powerful—it is also what the lions have come to represent.

Unlike elephants, water buffalo, or rhinos, the lions in this story represent a wilderness that is both violent and entirely untameable. Patterson’s cause is seen as a just one because there was no alternative to killing the lions. They could not be calmed or contained, and any efforts to trap them were met with failure. Additionally, the lions were filled with nothing but hatred for humans. Patterson writes early on in his book that “nothing flurried or frightened them in the least, and except for as food they showed a complete contempt for human beings” (1907:14). So not only were the lions an untameable nature, they were also a nature that would continue to do damage if not entirely eradicated. Patterson demonstrates this through his descriptions of how the lions continued to fight even after being shot, such as when the second lion dies “gamely, biting savagely at a branch” (54).

If the lions in Patterson’s story represented the wilderness to a British and American audience, then the railway was the material manifestation of progress and civilization in the region. In the introduction to The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, Patterson looks back at his time in Tsavo and illustrates the successes of the railway as he sees it:

The railway, which has modernised the aspect of the place and brought civilisation in its train, was then only in the process of construction, and the country through which it was being built was still in its primitive savage state, as indeed, away from the railway, it still is. (ix, sic)

In this way, the battle that was being waged at Tsavo wasn’t seen by Patterson, the Uganda Railway, or Great Britain as a battle of the lions against the railway workers; it was seen as something greater than that. The story of the “man-eaters” was a battle of civilization against wilderness. The victor would determine, as Miller has said, “the future of Uganda” (1971:253). Therefore, the tragedy of the lion attacks wasn’t the loss of life, but that civilization was being delayed by the wilderness. Every day that the bridge over the Tsavo River was held up was another day that Kenya would go without the civilizing, humanitarian influence of Great Britain.

Patterson’s account puts special emphasis on any example of the literal battle between nature and the railway that he can find. In the case of the lions he dedicates an entire chapter to the way in which a train carrying a British official was delayed until well after nightfall by “an enormous lion standing on the station platform” (1907:40). In another instance, Patterson relays the story of a lion, which was not one of the two “man-eaters”, that actually climbed on top of the station house and began ripping apart the roof in order to get at the station master inside. The emergency telegraph that the station master sent reads, “Lion fighting with station. Send urgent succour [help]” (158, sic). These instances make it explicitly clear that although Patterson and the workers were on the front lines, the battle was a much larger one.

Not only does the story call upon crisis between the civilization of Britain and the wild “savage state” of Africa, the lions in the story also reflect themes familiar to British and American audiences not only because of travel and adventure literature of the time, but also for their relation to biblical, Greek, and Roman mythology. Writing shortly after Patterson had killed the lions, the London-based newspaper known as The Spectator makes these comparisons painfully obvious:

The parallel to the story of the lions which stopped the rebuilding of Samaria must occur to every one, and if the Samaritans had quarter as good cause for their fears as had the railway coolies, their wish to propitiate the local deities is easily understood. If the whole body of lion anecdote, from the days of the Assyrian Kings till the last year of the nineteenth century, were collated and brought together, it would not equal in tragedy or atrocity, in savageness or in sheer insolent contempt for man, armed or unarmed, white or black, the story of these two beasts. (“The Lions that Stopped the Railway 1900:11)

The Samaritan lions to which the newspaper refers are from the biblical story of God’s punishment of the region of Sameria, which was in the ancient empire of Assyria. The lions in the story are called by God to destroy the Samaritans because they still practiced their heathen ways. By drawing comparisons between these two stories, the newspaper is not only tying the narrative into a broader history of empire; it is also implying that the lions are a punishment and that in the process of destroying the lions the British must also save the Africans that live along the railroad from their “savage state”, of which the lions are a natural consequence. The lions are the most dangerous animals God or Nature has to punish Man.

Nor was this story only compared to that of the Bible. The article also compares Patterson himself with mythical heroes of Greek mythology, especially Hercules (“The Lions that Stopped the Railway” 1900). In the legend of the “Twelve Labors” of Hercules, he must perform a number of tasks, one of which is the killing of a seemingly indestructible lion, which had been plaguing the land of Nemea, in central Greece. This lion was reportedly immune to mortal weapons, much like the “man-eaters” were mythicized to be. Hercules tracked it to its lair, and forgoing the help of other warriors, goes in alone and strangles the lion with his bare hands. In many paintings and texts (“The Nemean Lion” 2015).

In Patterson’s story, his own role as a solitary hero is vital and relates in many ways to the stories of Greek heroes such as Hercules. No matter how many “gun-boys” or porters he may have had by his side while the lions were stalking him, he still describes himself as alone against the beasts. This is evidenced especially by his description of the cowardice of the average railway worker. He writes of the courage required to continue working on the railroad: “the bravest men in the world, much less the ordinary Indian coolie (the workers), will not stand constant terrors of this sort indefinitely” (1907:37). Instead, the responsibility is on Patterson to brave the lions and the wilderness alone. He writes about stalking the “man-eaters”: “The silence of an African jungle on a dark night needs to be experienced to be realized; it is most impressive, especially when one is absolutely alone and isolated from one’s fellow creatures, as I was then” (47-48). This account plays on the romanticized idea of a white man all alone against the wilderness. It harkens back to the solitary heroes of Greek myths and also fits into the more modern ideas of “independence” and “survival of the fittest” of British and American Social Darwinism. This way, the story was not only built on older foundations of Greek heroism, but also plays into the major themes of capitalism, self-sufficiency, and progress.

“Scoundrels and Shirkers”

Of course, Patterson was very far from being alone. According to his own records the camp at Tsavo had between several hundred and 5,000 workers living at it at any one time (1907: 33); however, these workers are often described at best as “careless” (65) and at worst as “scoundrels” and “murderers” (32). The vast majority of workers were brought in from British colonial India; in total over 30,000 Indians worked for the Uganda Railway before its completion in 1901 (Miller 1971:290). These workers were far from their homes and families and were working in conditions of low pay, extreme heat, and constant lion attacks. It makes sense that many might, and did, refuse to continue to work. Patterson however uses instances of worker rebellion as an opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of British rule. A central point of his narrative is the domination of British civilization over the less-civilized people of the world.

Once, when confronted with a “mischief-maker” who claimed to be bed-ridden and unable to work, Patterson started a fire under the worker’s bed, causing him to leap up out of pain and run out of the camp hospital, thus proving that the worker didn’t actually need to stay in bed. According to Patterson the other workers who saw this exclaimed “Shabash Sahib!” meaning “Well done, sir!” (1907:28). He uses this story to prove that with a firm hand the “mischief-makers” could be easily dealt with and would respect British authority.

Several days after this occurrence, Patterson was faced with a workers’ mutiny in response to the brutal system of “piece-work” which he had instituted, in which workers were deducted pay for any infringement or failure to produce a certain quota. According to Patterson, as he went to check on workers that were excavating stones for the bridge foundations, they surrounded him and advanced upon him with shovels and crowbars. At that point he jumped upon a rock and began lecturing them in Hindustani, a language from Northern India. He writes that:

The habit of obedience still held them, and fortunately they listened to what I had to say. . . . I said I knew quite well it was only one or two scoundrels among them who had induced them to behave so stupidly. . . . They all knew I was just and fair to the real worker; it was only the scoundrels and shirkers who had anything to fear from me. . . . Finally I called upon those who were willing to return to work to raise their hands and instantly every hand in the crowd was raised. I then felt for a moment that victory was mine, and after dismissing them, I jumped down from the rock and continued my rounds as though nothing had happened. (32)

After the mutiny Patterson called the railway police to Tsavo and had the ringleaders arrested. All were found guilty and sentenced to various terms of “imprisonment in the chain gangs” and Patterson was “never again troubled with mutinous workmen” (32).

Not only does Patterson position himself as a strict taskmaster, he also repeatedly creates a paternalistic relationship with both the Indian workers and the various local people that he encounters.[6] When discussing his repeated efforts to kill the lions, he writes, “This constant night watching was most dreary and fatiguing work, but I felt that it was a duty that had to be undertaken, as the men naturally looked to me for protection” (36). In this way Patterson is the protector, in addition to the boss, of all of the workers. He, like many other colonizers at the time, calls most of the Africans in his employ “boys”, and “children” (87). At the end of The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, Patterson describes the paternalistic attachment he had formed for these “children”: “Towards the end of 1899 I left for England. A few days before I started all my Wa Kikuyu[7] ‘children’, as they called themselves, came in a body and begged to be taken with me. . . . They only wished to continue (to be) my ‘children’ wherever I went” (164).

This aspect of Patterson’s narrative does almost as much to create Britain’s position in the world as his account of the lions. He attempts to demonstrate the ways in which Indians and the local people that he encounters are naturally subservient to the British, but also how it is Britain’s job to “civilize” the more “savage” areas of the world.

The Legacy of the “Man-Eaters”

The Man-Eaters of Tsavo had a large influence on how Africa was perceived in America and Britain. It was especially popular among big-game hunters and “preservationists”, who were interested in taxidermy and creating game-reserves. This included one of the biggest names in safari expeditions at the time: former president Theodore Roosevelt. He was enthralled with Patterson’s account of the “man-eaters”, raving, “I think that the incident of the Uganda man-eating lions . . . is the most remarkable account of which we have any record” (Selous 1907:xi-xiii). Roosevelt was so moved by the story and impressed by Patterson’s heroics that he decided to plan his own safari trip across Africa. This trip was planned with the help of Colonel Patterson, as well as many other big-game hunters of the time (Patterson 2004:29). It was, in Roosevelt’s opinion, a resounding success, in which his party collected 5,000 specimens of large mammals alone, as well as thousands of other species. Many of the specimens he collected are now on display next to the “Man-Eaters of Tsavo” at the Field Museum (“Celebrating 100 Years”). Roosevelt’s renown as a big game hunter made his endorsement of Patterson’s book all the more influential. Thanks in a large part to the praise of Roosevelt and other big game hunters,[8] The Man-Eaters of Tsavo would quickly become the definitive account of African lion hunting.

Due to its role as a primary foundation for British and American perceptions of Africa, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo has inspired numerous adaptations into other mediums. One of the most popular of these was the 1996 film The Ghost and the Darkness. The movie starred Hollywood superstar Val Kilmer as Colonel John Patterson. In the movie the aspect of the lions as monsters is heavily emphasized by naming the lions “The Ghost”, and “The Darkness”, and with explicit mention that the lions hate Patterson most of all. The themes of industry versus nature are also very prevalent throughout the movie. At one point, the only way to flush the lions out of hiding is by burning down the jungle in which they hide; only then could Patterson kill the lions and continue building the railroad. In case the symbolism was not explicit enough, Patterson’s personal servant named simply “Samuel” (created specifically for the film), explains, “Some thought they were the devil sent to stop the white man from owning the world” (1996). Of course, the “devils” are eventually defeated and the movie concludes with a triumphant image of the train crossing Patterson’s bridge, providing a symbolic victory of British (white) civilization over nature (1996).

The movie introduced a whole new generation of American viewers to the story of the “man-eaters”. Despite being produced more than a century after the attacks, it included many of the same themes that The Man-Eaters of Tsavo created and perpetuated. One of its major themes was the idea that Africa is a uniform place. The movie (which is ostensibly set in the same location as the actual lion attacks) was filmed in the Songimielo game-reserve in South Africa, with primarily South African actors, while no mention of Kenya is made in the entire movie. Rather, Africa is seen as “just a place”, as Patterson’s character says at the beginning of the movie. Likewise, the theme of British dominance is strongly present. In an especially telling scene, Patterson proclaims upon completion of the railroad that “the prize is nothing less than the continent of Africa.” For viewers of the film, it is obvious that white civilization has won, and that Africa, portrayed as a single, uniform place, is better off because of British influence.

The Lions at the Field Museum

Upon his return to Great Britain in 1899, Patterson had the pelts of the “man-eaters” made into rugs, which he kept on display in his home for 25 years. After serving in World War I, Patterson took the rugs on a lecture circuit through the United States. He visited museums in New York, Ohio, Detroit, and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago (Patterson 2004:29-30). At the Field Museum, the museum’s president Stanley Field was so impressed by the story that he offered to buy the rugs off Patterson for the sum of five thousand dollars, which Patterson accepted. Patterson was also promised that his son would be allowed to have a job as a curator at the museum (1907:28).

Ever since, the lions have held their honorary place at the end of the Mammals of Africa exhibit. They stand both as the rulers over the animals of Africa, as well as an educational display about Africa itself. As the contemporary curator of the lions, Bruce Patterson (no relation to John Patterson) has written, “Public education is a principal goal of natural history museums” (9). Bruce Patterson’s book documents the story of his trip to Tsavo, Kenya, in order to learn the “truth” about what happened to the “man-eaters” (2004). The “truth” that he uncovers has been adapted into the display of the lions, including the potential whereabouts of their lair, and the reasons for their “man-eating” behavior.[9] This ever-expanding “truth”, presented by the accumulation of these curated “facts”, is extremely important for evaluating how the lions are seen by the viewing public, as well as the ways in which knowledge is created and cultural relations are understood. Stephanie Moser has written of the ways in which the “interpretive” nature of museum displays allows for seemingly unbiased presentations of concepts such as “civilization, progress, race, and gender” (Moser 2010:23-24). Similarly, Martin Hall has written that museum exhibits come to stand in for “authenticity” within a simulated environment (in this case the Field Museum’s depiction of Mammals of Africa) and reflect the audience’s already held conceptions of reality (2006:70-101). Hall goes on to characterize museums as “essential projects of modernization” (2006:7). In Hall’s view, not only are museums knowledge creators, they create a very specific form of knowledge: that of the self. By crafting a narrative of civilization against wilderness, the Tsavo Lions exhibit gives audiences an “unbiased” view of their own identity as modern, dynamic, and civilized, in contrast to an image of primitive, static, and uniform African wilderness.

Within the educational goals of the Field Museum, the act of taxidermy plays a large part. Upon arrival at the Field, the bodies of the lions were in “less than prime condition” as a result of being on display as rugs for so long (Davies 1926:449). Curators and taxidermists worked painstakingly to recreate the size and postures of the lions, however the damage to the pelts was significant. The placard accompanying the display is one of the few in the whole museum to actually apologize for the appearance of the specimen inside. It informs visitors that the lions would have appeared larger in real life, and that their lack of manes is a result of the climate in which they lived. This is done to assure visitors that although the taxidermy on these lions isn’t perfect (possibly implying that all of the other taxidermies are perfect), it is the most accurate representation of the lions that could be reasonably expected. This presentation of an unbiased “reality” or “truth”, is something that the museum strives for in its displays. As Donna Haraway has written:

Taxidermy was about the single story, about natures unity, the unblemished type specimen. Taxidermy became the art most suited to the epistemological and aesthetic stance of realism. The power of this stance is in its magical effects: what is so painfully constructed appears effortlessly, spontaneously found, discovered, simply there if one will only look. Realism does not appear to be a point of view, but appears as a “peephole into the jungle” where peace may be witnessed. (1984:34)

In the case of the “man-eaters”, the realism of pacificity is not shown so much as the realism of violence and danger. By making the lions appear “hyper-real”, the museum creates a display that shows a “truth” that is more accurate than anything Colonel Patterson’s book could present. Because the book is seen as one man’s interpretation of the events, its story can be read as flawed or biased. But the museum makes every attempt to appear impartial and unbiased while the act of taxidermy preserves things as “they really were.”

The “truth” and “reality” of the lions make their story resonate even with visitors that have never been to Tsavo, Kenya or seen a lion in the wild. David Quamman predicts that after all big cats are eradicated from the face of the earth, “people will find it hard to conceive that those animals were once proud, dangerous, unpredictable, widespread, and kingly, prowling free among the same forest, rivers, estuaries, and oceans used by humanity” (2003:15). However this very process of forgetting is something that the art of taxidermy in the Field Museum attempts to delay. The thousands of people that pass by the “Man-Eaters of Tsavo” exhibit every year are reminded that there were once animals that were “proud, dangerous, unpredictable, and kingly,” (Mammals of Africa, Chicago Field Museum) and that they lived, and were defeated, in Africa. As Haraway writes, the exhibition of these taxidermied animals is “a practice to produce permanence, to arrest decay” (1984:57). Through the process of taxidermy and display at the Field, visitors will continue to be reminded of the danger of the wilderness and Africa for generations to come. The museums present as fact an image of a wild and savage Africa, and therefore, much as Said (1977) has theorized, have created a knowledge of Africa as singular and unchanging, consumable and understandable for European and American audiences.

Ultimately, this is not a story about Kenya, or even one about Africa. This is a story about British and American conquest of these places. It is a narrative created by white British men, and is perpetuated and repackaged for modern day audiences by American institutions such as the Field Museum in Chicago. It plays into the historical themes of the “savage state” of Africa, and the humanitarian efforts of white men, creating stories that uphold ideas of white superiority and conquest. Both Patterson’s work The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, as well as the display at the Field, create an image of British and American influence in Africa that is presented as fact and ignores the historically coercive and destructive forces that these countries have enacted on the continent. When confronted with the story of the “man-eaters”, it is easy to get swept away in the danger and heroism of Patterson’s tale without taking a critical eye to his description of British colonialism or his place in Kenya. But it is important to acknowledge the ways in which these stories have helped to foster an idea of the “self” by “Othering” Africa. By critically analyzing and deconstructing this story and its representations, it is possible to begin to unpack the ways in which a seemingly benign institution like the Field Museum of Natural History helps to perpetuate the colonialist and imperialist attitudes found in The Man-Eaters of Tsavo. Only by doing this could the “Man-Eaters of Tsavo” cease to be one of the foundation myths for British and American conceptualization of Kenya and Africa as a whole.

Works Cited

“Best of Lion Stories.” Boston Daily Globe (Boston, Mass.), Mar. 13, 1909.

Brian, David. 2008. The Seven Lives of Colonel Patterson: How an Irish Lion Hunter Led the Jewish Legion to Victory. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

“Celebrating 100 Years: Smithsonian-Roosevelt African Expedition.” Smithsonian Museum of Natural History., Accessed April 21, 2015.

Davies, D. C. 1926. “Installation and Permanent Improvement.” In Annual Report of the Director to the Board of Trustees for the Year 1925. Report Series 6(5):437-452. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History.

Frank, Laurence, Seamus Maclennan, Leela Hazzah, Richard Bonham, and Tom Hill. 2006. “Lion Killing in the Amboseli-Tsavo Ecosystem, 2001–2006, and its Implications for Kenya’s Lion Population.” Living with Lions: Project Reports., Accessed April 21, 2015.

The Ghost and the Darkness. Film. Directed by Hopkins, Stephen. 1996. Los Angeles: Paramount Pictures. DVD.

Hall, Martin. 2006. “The Reappearance of the Authentic”. In Museum Frictions: Public Cultures/Global Transformations, Ivan Karp, Corinne Kratz, Lynn Szwaja, Tomás Ybarra-Frousto, eds., 70–101. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Haraway, Donna. 1984. “Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden.” Social Text 11:20–64.

“Lion Attacks.” Supplement to The Manchester Courier (Manchester, Eng.), Feb. 23, 1912:6.

“The Lions that Stopped the Railway.” The Spectator (London, Eng.), Mar. 3, 1900.

“The Man-Eaters of Tsavo.” Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art (London, Eng.), Oct. 12, 1907.

“The Man-Eaters of Tsavo.” The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette (Devon, Eng.), Oct. 22, 1907.

“The Man-Eaters of Tsavo.” Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art (London, Eng.), Oct. 12, 1907:459–460.

Mahomed, Dean. 1794. The Travels of Dean Mahomed. Cork: J. Conner.

Mammals of Africa. Chicago Field Museum. Chicago, IL.

Metcalf, Thomas. 2007. Imperial Connections: India in the Indian Ocean Arena, 1860-1920. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Miller, Charles. 1971. The Lunatic Express: An Entertainment in Imperialism. London: MacMillan and Co.

Moser, Stephanie. 2010. “The Devil is in the Details: Museum Displays and the Creation of Knowledge.” Museum Anthropology 33(1):22–32

“The Nemean Lion.” Perseus Project Digital Library., Accessed April 19, 2015.

Patterson, Bruce. 2004. The Lions of Tsavo: Exploring the Legacy of Africa’s Notorious Man-Eaters. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Patterson, John H. 1907. Man-Eaters of Tsavo [The Man-Eaters of Tsavo and Other East-African Adventures]. London: MacMillan and Co.

Peterhans, Julian C. and Thomas P. Gnoske. 2001. “The Science of ‘Man-Eating’ Among Lions Panthera Leo with a Reconstruction of the Natural History of the ‘Man-Eaters of Tsavo’.” Journal of East African Natural History 90(1):1–40.

Quamman, David. 2003. Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind. New York: W. W. Norton.

Said, Edward. 1977. Orientalism. London: Penguin.

Selous, F. C. 1907. “Foreward.” In The Man-Eaters of Tsavo [The Man-Eaters of Tsavo and Other East-African Adventures], xi-xiii. London: MacMillan and Co.

Smith, John. 1629. Generall Historie of Virginia. Bedford, MA: Applewood Books.

Wainaina, Binyavanga. 2005. “How to Write About Africa.” Granta: The Magazine of New Writing 92(1):np.

Wolmar, Christian. 2009. Blood, Iron & Gold: How the Railways Transformed the World. London: Atlantic Books.

Yeakela, Justin D., Bruce D. Patterson, Kena Fox Dobbs, Mercedes M. Okumurad, Thure E. Cerlinge, Jonathan W. Moore, Paul L. Koch, and Nathanial J. Dominya. 2009. “Cooperation and Individuality among Man-Eating Lions.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106(45):19,040–19,043.

End Notes

[1]. For examples of this sort of literature see John Smith, Generall Historie of Virginia. (Bedford, MA: Applewood Books., 1629) in the Virginia colony and Dean Mahomed. The Travels of Dean Mahomed. (Cork: J. Connor, 1794. 2 Vols) in India. It should also be noted that The Man Eaters of Tsavo (1907) was published less than a decade after Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), a fictive text that would nonetheless colour colonial perceptions of the African continent for hundreds of years.

[2]. The “Uganda” Railway is somewhat of a misnomer as the entirety of the completed railway runs through what is today Kenya. However, at the time the region that is today both Uganda and Kenya was known simply as “Uganda”.

[3]. Patterson measured the lions at 9’8 and 9’6 respectively from nose to tail and over 3’6 at the shoulder: extremely large for lions. The lions appear small in the display at the Field due to their unique taxidermy which will be discussed later.

[4]. Maneless lions are common in this part of Kenya even today, probably due to the intense heat of the region. However, Patterson and the workers had no way of knowing this, making the lions’ appearance seem strange and unnatural.

[5]. The study by Yeakela et al. (2009) concluded that the lions could have consumed between 5 and 72 people over the nine-month period. This was based on the amount and types of protein found in their hair and skin. The median amount was 34.7 humans consumed, far below Patterson’s estimate of 135 people.

[6]. Including the Masai and Kikuyu. He devotes extensive portions of his book describing the tribes that he met and their unique appearances and habits, as well as the potential for conversion and civilization of each group. See: The Man-Eaters of Tsavo Chapter XI and XXI.

[7]. Here Patterson is referring to the Kikuyu tribe. The Kikuyu people remain one of the largest ethnic groups in contemporary Kenya.

[8]. This included F.C. Selous, who wrote the foreward to The Man-Eaters of Tsavo (1907).

[9]. Bruce Patterson (2004) suggests that “man-eating” behaviour is usually caused by injury or old age. However, both of the “Man-Eaters of Tsavo” were young, healthy lions. Their taste for humans may have been developed by eating the remains of people that died on the slave-trade route that ran through Tsavo. “Man-eating” behaviour, as Bruce Patterson has shown, is a habit-forming activity; once the lions began to eat people, it became the principle energy source in their diet.

From Nature to Nation: shizen and the Japanese national imaginary

by Alexander MacNeil
Master’s Candidate | York University, Toronto, Canada


This article critically examines the history of Japanese ideas and images of nature, particularly how those ideas and images relate to the production of the modern Japanese nation-state and Japanese national identity. Drawing crucially upon Julia Adeney Thomas’s historical work on the politics of nature in Japan, while examining the lives and work of Shiga Shigetaka, Yanagita Kunio, and Watsuji Tetsurō, the link between nation and nature, and how those two concepts have been fashioned together throughout Japan’s modern history, is explored. This article identifies the context in which the Japanese “love of nature” is constructed through these key figures, arguing that this understanding of nature took precedence precisely because it serves to inform the Japanese national imaginary, giving voice and distinction to the Japanese nation-state. Ultimately, it is argued that this close relationship between nation and nature is undeniably a modern one, and it exemplifies but one expression in a multitude of Japanese reactions to modernity and the concomitant threat of western influence and hegemony that began during the Meiji period.

Key words: Japan, nature, national imaginary, cultural nationalism, Meiji

Publication Information
Volume 3, Issue 1 (2017)

A number of scholars have remarked upon the persistence of the idea that Japanese culture reflects or embodies a certain harmony with, and appreciation for, “nature” (Asquith and Kalland 1997; Martinez 2005; Kirby 2011). This alleged cultural characteristic of Japan and its people is typically underscored by certain essentialized images of nature, be it cherry blossom viewing (hanami), flower arrangement (ikebana), Japanese gardening, bonsai, or mythologized natural-cultural sites such as Mt. Fuji or the Yakushima forest. At times, this supposedly distinctive relationship with nature has been argued as capable of motivating sustainable development or informing a robust environmental ethics; indeed, Julia Adeney Thomas lists a number of authors (both Japanese and non-Japanese) who have argued that a Japanese love for nature provides “not only aesthetic guideposts but also a foundation for careful environmental stewardship” (2001:9 n1). This idealized view of Japanese nature, with its implicit sense of harmony, however, inevitably conflicts with the reality of contemporary late capitalist, postindustrialized Japan. The accelerated economic growth in the postwar period, sometimes referred to as Japan’s “economic miracle,” has often resulted in an excess of polluted landscapes and toxic bodies. This has been most notoriously exemplified by the “big four” major postwar pollution cases—Minamata disease, Niigata Minamata disease, Itai-Itai disease, and Yokkaichi air pollution (Miyamoto 2013)—and has again been emphasized more recently by the extensive social and environmental costs that followed the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

Where do these particular Japanese ideas and images of nature come from, and why are they maintained in the face of such contradiction? What is the relationship between these ideas and images of nature and the ideas and images that help constitute the imagined Japanese nation-state, in the vein of Benedict Anderson’s (1983) “imagined community”? Are such ideas and images of nature being mobilized, advertently or inadvertently, on behalf of the nation-state? To examine these questions fully, I will trace the modern history of Japanese ideas and images of nature alongside the modern history of what many observers have called Japan’s “cultural nationalism” (Yoshino 1992; Sakai 1997).[1] In delineating this history, I suggest that contemporary idealized Japanese ideas and images of nature are in fact modern productions, created through Japan’s encounters and dialogues with the West, ultimately working to signify the unity and homogeneity of the Japanese nation-state, suggesting the character of its national identity. The development of late Meiji writings and Kyoto school literature on Japanese ideas and images of nature, on the one hand, and its reproduction and reinforcement through nihonjinron discourses in the postwar period on the other, contributed to the intimate ties between nation and nature. This close relationship between nation and nature functioned as but one expression in a multitude of Japanese reactions to the anxieties of modernity and the threat of western influence. Ultimately, this reactionary process of “overcoming modernity” (kindai no chōkoku; Satsuka 2015:22) was characterized by essentialized Japanese national self-descriptions maintained in dialectical relationship with an ideal and normalized West, while inexorably using western language, logics, and epistemes. This condition of Japanese modernity exhibits what Sakai Naoki calls “transferential desire”: Japan’s modern desire to see itself as a distinctive cultural and national unity from an exterior perspective, recognizing its own complete otherness from the position of the western gaze (1997:59).

Nature’s Political History

As Raymond Williams famously remarked, nature “is perhaps the most complex word in the [English] language” (1976:219). William Cronon (1995) reminds us how nature—or “wilderness,” as he calls it—is culturally and historically constructed as a reified place outside of human activity, while Bruno Latour (2004) more recently cautions us on how politics is always imbricated in nature, and nature in politics. Thus problematizing this term in the Japanese context is crucial to my analysis. Indeed, tracing the development of Japanese discourses of nature and their relationship to the nation-state is significant because, as Thomas maintains, “whoever can define nature for a nation defines that nation’s polity on a fundamental level” (2001:2–3). Thomas argues that a nation’s understanding of nature ultimately signifies the limits of individual and collective action, structuring the cosmic place and weight of the human being. In her understanding, nature is always political, and whoever has the capacity to reconfigure conceptions of nature inevitably has the capacity to alter the political landscape to their advantage. Indeed, this understanding informs Thomas’s study, whose purpose is to therefore elucidate the history of the politics of nature in Japan in order to demonstrate its production. More precisely, she explores how nature was manipulated and redefined as an aspect of the political strategies utilized by the ruling political classes of Japan from the Tokugawa period (1603–1868), through the Meiji period (1868–1912), and the Taishō period (1912–1926), until the end of the Second World War.

Nature as it was understood in Tokugawa Japan was historically communicated by a wealth of vocabulary, frequently borrowed from Chinese by Japanese Neo-Confucian writers, suggesting the lack of a single concept. These various terms described different aspects of the nature concept, from “heaven and earth” (tenchi), to “the myriad objects” (manbutsu), to “heaven/nature’s law” (tenri); there was no comprehensive understanding of nature as a unified concept, object, place, or ontology (Thomas 2001:33). Because this diversity of meaning and signification indicates that Japan historically had no standardized conception of nature in the way that it is understood today—perhaps articulated through notions of “environment” or “ecology” in a scientific ecological sense—to retroactively identify any of these Tokugawa concepts as constituting shizen or nature (as some scholars have done) would be anachronistic. Shiho Satsuka argues similarly, maintaining that nature did not exist as a unified concept in Japan before the Meiji period, adding that the concept “nature,” as well as “subject” and “freedom,” when first introduced to Japan, “were the most enigmatic but important ones in transforming the country and its population” (2015:19). These novel concepts, fundamental to western epistemologies, were transformative because of the simultaneous scope and ambiguity of their meaning, and/yet they posed a challenge for translation, as they had no immediate commensurability in the Japanese language. Their adoption during the Meiji period of westernization, and the Japanese attempts at translating such complex notions, thrust the Japanese people into a process of deep intellectual and cultural change. As Satsuka reminds us, in the course of linguistic and cultural translation, this incommensurability inexorably remains at the heart of the adopted concept, resulting in “an irreconcilable tension between the foreign and host worldviews” (2015:24). This tension, as I will explore, epitomizes Japan’s encounters with otherness.

In Thomas’s account of the history of the nature concept in Japanese political ideology, she characterizes nature’s change over time as “nature as place, nature as time, and nature as nation” (2001:30). In the Tokugawa period, although initially signified by a range of terminology and meaning, nature was eventually reoriented primarily into spatial terms; hence, Thomas designates nature as place. She argues that although nature as place still maintained some variation in application, Tokugawa thinkers generally held that nature ought to be understood in terms of its vertical and horizontal expansiveness, centred on a single point of highest value, that place most unified with nature: the Japanese Imperial centre. This altogether constituted what she describes as the “topographic political imagination” of Tokugawa Japan (38). The centre of this topography was thus thought of as the apex of naturalness, the site of heaven and earth, as well as the seat of political virtue, while peripheral and exterior space was characterized by increasing unnaturalness and disorder.

During the early Meiji period, as Japan expanded both territorially and intellectually, Thomas argues that the concept of nature expanded and diversified into “nature defined as the world’s fundamental structure or law, as the natural forces governing the future, and as the primary political body of the national government” (73). With increasing exposure to non-Japanese ideas, histories, and epistemologies, nature eventually became politically attached to notions of temporality—nature as time. Thomas maintains that an imported social Darwinism in particular played an influential role in the construction of the Japanese worldview. She argues that during a period of considerable political debate between the years 1881 and 1883, the Meiji politician Katō Hiroyuki and his detractors sparred over matters of governance, with Katō claiming “that oligarchic rule was the correct form of government for Meiji Japan according to the dictates of natural evolution” (84). According to Thomas, this understanding, which became hegemonic for a time, held that nature fundamentally had a telos, a trajectory of improvement and progression, in turn implying a temporality, a history. Nature was the Imperial centre, and the Imperial centre was the pinnacle of development.

In the late Meiji period, as Japan increasingly modernized its government, its education system, and its economy, while making efforts to increase its international standing with the defeat of China in 1895 and the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902, the use of the nature concept became less conspicuously political. Instead, Thomas suggests, “the social Darwinism concept of nature, stressing universal evolutionary stages, proved so detrimental to nationalistic aspirations that it was discarded during the 1890s while another, more nationalistic and useful concept of nature was developed.” This new concept of nature found salience in what she terms Japanese “cultural discourses” (2001:158–159). Effectively, as the Japanese began to conceive of themselves through this imported evolutionary model of the world, they inevitably ran the risk of self-identifying as “less developed” vis-à-vis the modern West: that ideal, homogenized grouping of advanced foreign nations, cultures, and philosophies that Japan sought to emulate and ultimately contend with on its own terms. Thomas argues that it was during this moment of modernization as a mimetic procedure of westernization, where emulation was seen as sociopolitical equivalence, that Japan “acculturated” nature. This understanding of nature, as embedded in cultural aesthetics and practices, comes to dominate Japanese discourses of nature, forming the basis for “Japan’s twentieth-century ‘love of nature,’ a love simultaneously cultural and political” (178). This new kind of nature concept remains political precisely because of its identification with Japanese national culture, a national culture that can thus stand on its own. In this way, the Japanese nature concept as constructed from the late Meiji on, expressed now as the term shizen almost exclusively, comes to be identified with the national-cultural identity of the Japanese. It functions as an essential discursive tool of the “imagined community” that constitutes national consciousness (Anderson 1983), demonstrating what Ernest Gellner calls the merging of the political and the cultural into the singular unit of the nation (1983:1, 35).

Nature as Nation

Before identifying how nature as nation, as Thomas calls it, comes to be, it is necessary to explore the radical changes that occurred in Japan during the late Meiji, Taishō, and postwar periods more systematically, particularly as these changes and the anxieties they provoke are embodied in the writings of Shiga Shigetaka, Yamagita Kunio, and Watsuji Tetsurō. This will be crucial, as these three influential Japanese authors strove to define a unique Japanese national perspective through a particular approach to and relationship with nature.

Shiga Shigetaka (1863–1927) was a journalist and editor of the Nihonjin magazine (The Japanese), whose book Nihon fūkeiron (Japanese Landscape) sought to see in Japan a new kind of landscape. This landscape corresponded with images of a spatialized nature, an understanding inspired by the then-burgeoning mountaineering tradition of western nations. Shiga, along with alpinist Kojima Usui, was particularly instrumental in popularizing the Meiji neologism Nippon Arupusu (Japanese Alps); a term originally taken from Walter Weston’s influential Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps (1896), and one that typifies the encroachment of western ideas into Japanese understandings of space (Wigen 2005). Indeed, these novel conceptions of space coincided with the introduction and advancement of geography as an academic discipline, while also tellingly coinciding with Japan’s imperialist colonial movements abroad. These two developments were of course closely linked; as Kären Wigen (2005) argues, Japanese modernizers understood geography as “an indispensable tool of statecraft” (3), and alpinism as the “adoption of a Western optic that linked climbing with claiming” (5). In this way, geography functioned to inform the national imaginary by means of the notion of a bounded space to know and master, and thus constituting the imagined “body” of the nation. This is akin to Anderson’s analysis of the map in the late colonial state as a “totalizing classificatory grid,” identifying all that existed under the control of the state, and that which functioned as a precursor to national consciousness (1983:184). While Shiga’s writings about the virtues of alpinism certainly encouraged the exploration and appreciation of landscape and nature in a cosmopolitan, globetrotting fashion—Satsuka, in her recent ethnography (2015), writes about Maki Yūkō’s climb up Mount Alberta in 1925 and the influence it had on Japanese tour guides working in Banff—Shiga’s writings primarily encouraged the exploration and appreciation of a Japanese nature and geography, a chartable space unique to the Japanese nation-state.

Coinciding with the making of space as the body of the nation through the introduction of geography, the Meiji development of categorizing sites and artefacts of national-cultural importance, otherwise known as cultural properties management, signified the filling of that national body with its constituent parts. The institution of cultural properties management in Japan, along with the introduction and promotion of the academic discipline of archaeology (then still relatively new in western countries), was exemplified through the establishment of the Tokyo Imperial Museum in 1872, and later the Old Shrines and Temples Preservation Law of 1897. The subsequent development of two bourgeois preservation societies, the Imperial Ancient Sites Survey Society and the Society for the Investigation and Preservation of Historic Sites and Aged Trees, and their success in petitioning for the creation of more extensive cultural properties legislation (the Law for the Preservation of Historic Sites, Places of Scenic Beauty, and Natural Monuments of 1919) further denotes Japan’s commitment to documenting its nature and culture through a western optic (Edwards 2005). Indeed, similar kinds of practices are discussed at length in Richard Handler’s ethnographic work on Quebecois nationalism, wherein he argues that the Quebec notion of patrimoine (heritage) envisioned “national culture as property, and the nation as a property-owning ‘collective individual’” (1988:141). As he describes it, this kind of objectifying logic understands the possession of a heritage, directly equated with the possession of a culture, as providing the crucial proof for national existence: “We are a nation because we have a culture” (142). Moreover, Handler argues that this understanding is integral to any modern nationalist project, stating, “a self-conscious national or ethnic group will claim possession of cultural properties as both representative and constitutive of cultural identity” (154). This belief is ultimately reflected in the dual development of geography and archaeology in Meiji Japan, both of which functioned as techniques for charting the space of the nation-state and identifying legitimate cultural and national markers to populate such space, ultimately serving to inform the Japanese nationalist project.

The next figure in our discussion is Yanagita Kunio (1875–1962), a Japanese native ethnographer and author of the widely popular Tōno monogatari (The Legends of Tono), credited for first establishing and promoting folklore studies in Japan, and for being a highly significant actor in the production of modern Japanese national identity. It was during the 1920s, halfway through his career, when he “turned from an interest in fantastic tales and regional peculiarities” towards attempting to discover a “unifying essence for the Japanese people” (Schnell 2005:209). In his concern for unearthing the basic or primordial character of Japaneseness, he articulated the importance of the concept jōmin (ordinary folk) to the traditional Japanese experience. For Yanagita, stereotyped customs of ancestor and kami worship, as well as a predominantly sedentary and agricultural lifestyle, characterize jōmin. In fact, these traits demonstrated the core qualities of the Japanese national identity for Yanagita, and it is not difficult to imagine how readily these beliefs would be practised in Japanese nationalist discourses (Schnell 2005). Marilyn Ivy notes the enduring power of Yanagita’s folklore studies to support an increasingly popular nostalgia-driven domestic tourism in contemporary Japan: “In citing Yanagita, late-twentieth-century Japanese explicitly locate themselves in a lineage, sequentially reiterating his theoretical attempts to journey back to the national-cultural home” (1995:63).

This longing for a purported national-cultural home, partly instigated by Yanagita, is probably best exemplified by the notion of furusato (literally “old village,” but often rendered as hometown), a nostalgic agrarian ideal that remains a common trope in the Japanese national imaginary today, as Marilyn Ivy’s Discourses of the Vanishing vividly demonstrates. In her endeavour to ethnographically translate the modern Japanese anxiety over a supposedly “vanishing” culture—characteristically posited as something traditional, situated in the countryside (inaka), on the margins of urban centres and capitalist production—Ivy identifies these peripheral practices and discourses as “continuously repositioned at the core of the national-cultural imaginary” and central to a national narrative of cultural loss and recovery (1995:20). For Ivy, these “phantasmatic” discourses of nostalgia appeals to a premodernity, particularly one that is always in need of recovery and one that is repeatedly commodified and consumed through domestic furusato tourism, are closely tied to dominant discourses on cultural purity and internal homogeneity, which together help to build the impression of a tightly bound community, the kyōdōtai of the nation-state. In turn, as furusato comes to signify less an actual hometown located in the Japanese countryside, it becomes largely an idealized and deterritorialized construction, residing primarily in memory but alluded to by a number of material markers. Indeed, as Jennifer Robertson notes, “the ubiquity of furusato as a signifier of a wide range of cultural productions effectively imbues those productions with unifying—and ultimately nativist and national—political meaning and value” (1988:494). Furusato is thus an idealized love for rural village life endorsed by the nation (Gill 2013). Peter Wynn Kirby (2011), in his recent ethnography on waste and pollution in Japan, demonstrates how furusato and rural nostalgia are consumed regularly by Japanese seeking to renew their proximity with nature, from participation in rural harvest festivals (shūkaku no matsuri) and flower viewing (hanami), to the patronage of rural bars and restaurants thought of as culturally rich and healing.

Furusato, as a figurative lost home central to the communitas of modern Japan, also resonates with Daphne Berdahl’s work on postsocialist East Germany, wherein the distinctive cultural nostalgia of East Germany vis-à-vis West Germany is incessantly invoked through mass-mediated cultural representations, and exemplified by the film Good Bye, Lenin! This nostalgia, she argues, reflects not a longing for a return to an actual past (characterized by a brutal regime), but rather “a sense of lost possibilities and critiques of the present” (2010). In this same way, furusato also involves a critique of the present, as it was popularized at a time when “state-sponsored industrialization and processes of bureaucratic rationalism” had denoted rural Japan as an afterthought, as impeding progress (Ivy 1995:107). Indeed, furusato acts as a rejection of overt westernization and modernization, despite “prewestern Japanese authenticity” being “inescapably a modern endeavour” (241). Ultimately, it embodies the desire to return to the primordial origins of the Japanese nation-state and its people, to find a culturally distinctive sense of an agrarian Japaneseness, one in proximity and harmony with nature.

This rejection of westernization, paired with the search for the quintessentially Japanese, is one of the defining features of Watsuji Tetsurō’s thought as well. Watsuji Tetsurō (1889–1960), a Japanese intellectual and cultural historian associated with the Kyoto school of early-twentieth-century Japan, was celebrated for his influential 1935 philosophical work Fūdo (Climate), in which he argued that the distinctiveness in culture and behaviour of the various peoples of the world are determined in large part by distinctive differences in geography and climate. Watsuji claims that we can “discover climatic phenomena in all the expressions of human activity,” from diet, food preparation, and manners, to architecture, literature, art, and religion (1961:7–8). In effect, nature defines and determines culture. Describing the three broad types of climate—“monsoon,” “desert,” and “meadow”—he argues that Japan, a monsoon climate, is in fact the most distinctive kind of monsoon climate, exhibiting a “dual nature” that fluctuates between the subtropical and the subarctic, that has four distinct seasons, and that is characterized by abrupt changes in rhythm. Crucially, he links this wild and changeable climate to the innate emotive nature of the Japanese:

This, then, is the distinctive Japanese way of life—a copious outflow of emotion, constantly changing, yet concealing perseverance beneath this change; at every moment in this alternation of mutability and endurance, there is abruptness. This activity of emotions sinks to resigned acquiescence in resistance, and underneath the exaltation of activity there lies a quiet and suddenly apparent abandonment. This is a quiet savagery of emotion, a fighting disinterest. Here we discover the national spirit of Japan. (1961:137–138)

Here, the dual nature of Japan’s environmental situatedness precipitates the dual nature of the Japanese character, and therefore in Watsuji’s thought, nature is identified with nation. Ultimately, this presentation of the dual nature of the Japanese becomes a popular trope in postwar discourses on the uniqueness of the Japanese, perpetuated by Japanese and non-Japanese alike (c.f., Benedict 1946:2–3).

While searching for the essence of the Japanese spirit, Watsuji’s notion of geographic determinism actually reflects a strong engagement with western philosophy, particularly German existentialism and phenomenology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Citing the influence of Martin Heidegger in particular, Graham Mayeda argues that Watsuji’s Fūdo was in part inspired by a desire to respond to the perceived failings of Heidegger’s Being and Time, particularly its prioritization of the temporal over the spatial, while nonetheless employing a Heideggerian understanding of “both space and the historical” in his analysis (2006:37). In this engagement with western thought, Watsuji can be situated in a trend amongst Japanese intellectuals during the early part of the twentieth century in which western logics and epistemologies were utilized in the identification and explication of the Japanese “intellectual tradition,” which until the radical modernization of the Meiji Reformation, had not been conceived of as such. The most prominent and influential Japanese intellectuals in this trend belonged loosely to the “Kyoto school,” an early-twentieth-century collection of individuals working out of Kyoto University, who were united in their commitment to espousing a specifically Japanese philosophical tradition through engagement with the most prominent western philosophers of the time. The core members of the Kyoto school included Nishida Kitarō (1870–1945), Tanabe Hajime (1885–1962), Nishitani Keiji (1900–1990), and later Watsuji Tetsurō (Carter 2013). As Ueda Shizuteru argues, the Kyoto school philosophers, with Nishida at the helm, supposed that, “by learning from Western culture the spirit of giving scholarly form to theory, Japanese culture will be able to overcome itself and step out into the world” (1994:101).

Zen and Nihonjinron

Indeed, the Japanese intellectual climate of the time facilitated the Japanese effort to demonstrate to the West (and therefore to themselves) that Japanese thought could be described using western vocabularies and frameworks ultimately commensurate and consequently competitive with the philosophies of the West. Perhaps most notably this is seen in the life and work of Zen apologist Suzuki Daisetsu Teitarō (popularly known as D. T. Suzuki). As Robert H. Sharf aptly demonstrates in his analysis of Zen Buddhism and Japanese nationalism, Suzuki reframed Zen as a “direct experience,” the universal basis for all religious belief and practice, and yet as a tradition undeniably Japanese in character (1993:26). For Suzuki, Zen was both the highest form of religious practice as well as a religious tradition that was best cultivated and perfected by the Japanese. Suzuki, who became a renowned international authority on Zen, was but another historically contingent actor in the development of a number of rhetorical strategies that sought to guard Japanese specificity against “Western universalizing discourse” (36). This rather constructed presentation of Zen as a universal religion, emphasizing direct experience and deinstitutionalization, was certainly one that appealed to western practitioners and intellectuals. Ironically, these universal aspects were in fact inspired by Suzuki’s (conspicuously deemphasized) engagement with western philosophers of religion such as William James and Friedrich Schleiermacher, again demonstrating how Japanese national self-presentation was adopted readily by both Japanese and non-Japanese alike. As Sharf remarks: “Like Narcissus, Western enthusiasts failed to recognize their own reflection in the mirror being held out to them” (39).

These developments in Zen and Japanese philosophy of the early twentieth century are part of a wider national-cultural discussion in Japan known as nihonjinron (theories of the Japanese), a genre of writings that emerged in reaction to modernization, maturing during the postwar period and reaching their peak in the 1970s (Yoshino 1992). According to Sharf, nihonjinron is “a popular discursive enterprise devoted to the delineation and explication of the unique qualities of the Japanese, which invariably touts the cultural homogeneity as well as the moral and spiritual superiority of the Japanese vis-à-vis other peoples” (1993:34–35). Nihonjinron was but another expression of Japan’s reaction against westernization processes, and to the processes of national self-assertion that began in the Meiji period. In a way, the concerns of the nihonjinron authors, articulated within western epistemologies, constitute what Sakai calls “transferential desire,” or the desire to see one’s position from the position of another. In another way, they indicate what Roger Goodman, drawing up Said’s work on Orientalism, calls a self-imposed “reverse Orientalism” born out of an “Occidentalism,” or rather an elevation of the East through the discursive subjugation of the West (2005:69). Kosaku Yoshino, in his discussion of Japanese cultural nationalism, argues that it is through nihonjinron literature that the fundamentals of the Japanese nationalist project are explored most explicitly. In particular, he places nihonjinron in a history of Japanese engagement with a universalized otherness, first as a reaction to the threat of Chinese influence and hegemony, and more recently with that of the West: “The nihonjinron or discussions of Japanese uniqueness are, therefore, discussions of ‘particularistic’ cultural differences of Japan from the ‘universal’ civilisation” (1992:9). Nihonjinron of the postwar period, along with the writings of Shiga, Yanagita, and Watsuji in the late Meiji and Taishō periods before that, help to frame the nationalistic context in which a “love for nature” is configured as a defining characteristic of the Japanese.


Although I have spoken of Japanese ideas and images of nature as playing a key role in the promulgation of the Japanese national imaginary, this understanding of nature is not ubiquitous in Japan; nature in Japan is not a singular experience. As D. P. Martinez (2005) argues in her ethnographic work on Japanese fishing villages, differences in attitudes and ideas surrounding nature were found to exist on the basis of class differences, with rural fishermen being more observant of environmental issues and urban dwellers engaging in nature much more indifferently. Nancy Rosenberger (1997) argues that nature is understood differently on the basis of gender and can in many ways legitimize gender difference itself, as demonstrated through her analysis of the role of nature tropes in Japanese women’s magazines. Moreover, it is not hard to imagine that conceptions of nature may yet again undergo a shift in meaning, as evidenced by Satsuka’s Japanese tour guides’ search for a “magnificent nature” outside of Japan. In her ethnography, Japanese youth sought nature elsewhere (along with new freedoms and new subjectivities) in part due to the precariousness of labour and livelihood in contemporary neoliberal Japan. Anne Allison argues that this precariousness has become an almost existential state, in which “one’s human condition has become precarious as well” (2013:9). After the triple disasters of 2011, this precarious state has again been exacerbated; many in Tōhoku still remain displaced on account of both the tsunami and the ongoing Fukushima exclusion zone. As help from the government and urban residents falters, what becomes of rural Japanese living in Tōhoku? How does this affect the furusato ideal?

In placing my discussion of contemporary understandings of the Japanese nature concept (shizen) within the context of nihonjinron in the postwar period, as well as in the writings of Shiga, Yanagita, and Watsuji in the late Meiji and Taishō periods before that, I argue that it was largely the idea of nature that has been mobilized discursively in the construction of modern Japanese nation-state. As we have seen, this idea of nature is one that has been steadfastly coupled with images of an essentialized Japan, in turn proving to be highly significant to Japanese national myth making. Shiga’s new landscape coupled spatialized nature for the nation with geography and archaeology, Yanagita’s jōmin mythologized the agrarian lifestyle and the furusato ideal, Watsuji linked nature with climate and temperament, and nihonjinron and other postwar discourses focused and solidified the essentialization of the Japanese national identity, drawing upon these Meiji figures and their notions of nature. Contrary to the nationalist arguments made by these figures and nihonjinron writers, such powerful and essentialized ideas and images of nature did not come out some murky, prewestern, and premodern Japanese “tradition,” as if such a unified and singular thing ever existed. Rather, nature is very much a modern development, becoming so pervasive precisely because of its national-cultural potency, as well as on account of its direct applicability to nation-building and national identity-making. Japanese ideas and images of nature, as they are discursively practised in the everyday, are ultimately crafted in the service of the modern nation.

Works Cited

Allison, Anne. 2013. Precarious Japan. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities. London: Verso.

Asquith, Pamela J. and Arne Kalland. 1997. “Japanese Perceptions of Nature: Ideals and Illusions.” In Japanese Images of Nature: Cultural Perspectives. Pamela J. Asquith and Arne Kalland, eds., 1–35. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press.

Benedict, Ruth. 1946. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Berdahl, Daphne. 2010. “Good Bye, Lenin! Aufwiedersehen GDR: On the Social Life of Socialism.” In Post-Communist Nostalgia. Maria Todorova and Zsuzsa Gille, eds., 177–189. New York: Berghahn Books.

Carter, Robert E. 2013. The Kyoto School: An Introduction. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Cronon, William. 1995. Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Edwards, Walter. 2005. “Japanese Archaeology and Cultural Properties Management: Prewar Ideology and Postwar Legacies.” In A Companion to the Anthropology of Japan. Jennifer Robertson, ed., 36–49. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Gellner, Ernest. 1983. Nations and Nationalism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Gill, Tom. 2013. “This Spoiled Soil: Place, People and Community in an Irradiated Village in Fukushima Prefecture.” In Japan Copes with Calamity: Ethnographies of the Earthquake Tsunami and Nuclear Disasters of March 2011. David H. Slater, Brigitte Steger, and Tom Gill, eds., 201–233. Bern: Peter Lang AG.

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Handler, Richard. 1988. Nationalism and the Politics of Culture in Quebec. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

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Rosenberger, Nancy R. 1997. “Interpretation of Nature and the Legitimation of Gender Differences: ‘Natural’ Links in the Japanese Social Field.” In Japanese Images of Nature: Cultural Perspecives. Pamela J. Asquith and Arne Kalland, eds., 145–165. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press.

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[1] By “modern,” I refer to Japan from the development of the Meiji period on (1868–1912), as it was within this timeframe that Japan deliberately entered into a rapid phase of self-described “modernization,” as well as an intense process of “westernization.”

Volume 3, Issue 1 (2017)

Volume 3 of Contingent Horizons: The York University Student Journal of Anthropology is now available! We would like to thank all of our contributors and the Department of Anthropology at York University in particular who continues to generously support and publish this journal.

While Contingent Horizons is printed in a limited number of copies, the electronic version of the journal is its keystone. It is our hope that the website will offer a safe space for respectful discussion that will extend the life of the published scholarly materials and encourage debates beyond their publication. The articles are currently accessible as blog entries, which will facilitate commentaries and healthy discussions. The PDF format and print version of this volume is forthcoming.


Table of Contents
Volume 3, Issue 1 (2017)


A Critique of the ‘Paleo Diet’: broader implications of a socio-cultural food practice
by Ashley Reeves | (Blog Post)

Ethnographic Memories: the politics of fieldwork
by Maxime Polleri | (Blog Post)

Body, Nature, and Society: neonatal resuscitation [En] | Corps, Nature et Société : la réanimation néonatale [Fr]
by Clara Czuppon | (Blog Post)

A Guide for Graduate Students: barriers to conducting qualitative research among vulnerable groups
by Priscilla Medeiros | (Blog Post)

Memories of the Herrin Massacre
by Caroline Robertson | (Blog Post)

The Nail in the Man’s Leg
by Christine cricri Bellerose | (Blog Post)

“Man Eaters”: the myth of wild Africa
by Kendall Artz| (Blog Post)

From Nature to Nation: shizen and the development of the Japanese national imagery
by Alexander MacNeil | (Blog Post)


For more information about the vision of this journal, an annual open-access student journal that seeks to expand anthropological discussion by publishing students’ work and remaining open to a variety of alternative formats, please click here.