The Nature of Ethnography and Politics

Jan 2010
Southern Tier, NY
Just finished writing up a midterm paper for my political anthropology class. I'm rather happy with it. Feedback would be appreciated from any who are feeling generous. Due on Monday so fingers crossed for a good grade.

The Nature of Ethnography and Politics
“Ordinary Men” as Reflexive Subjects​
A thirty five year old metal worker and policeman of the Reserve Battalion 101 in reference to the actions that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1,500 Jews in the Polish village of Jozefow is quoted as recounting:
“I made the effort, and it was possible for me to shoot only children. It so happened that the mothers led the children by the hand. My neighbor then shot the mother and I shot the child that belonged to her, because I reasoned with myself that after all without its mother the child could not live any longer. It was supposed to be, so to speak, soothing to my conscience to release children unable to live without their mothers.” (Browning: 73)
This man is not alone in his attempt to rationalize and explain the disturbing events that took place in Poland during World War II. The men of reserve police battalion 101 who are detailed as the subjects of Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men did not fit the stereotypical model of the Nazi soldier. These men were considered too old to be candidates for the German army; they were of the lower-middle and working classes and typically family men. What is interesting about these men was that they had known Germany before the Nazis and had not grown up under the propaganda of the party and as such they had formed moral opinions separate from those of Hitler’s Nazis. Very quickly in Browning’s work is the stereotypical image of the Nazi as a moral absolute shattered. And what is found in this text can be read as a kind of historically oriented ethnography. It is a study of men who in all ways would be considered “ordinary” by today’s standards, except for one glaring fact and that is their involvement with the Nazi final solution. By using the narrations and accounts of these men as recorded directly from their mouths Browning is using these stories as a framework for understanding and contextualizing the political conditions that motivated them. The subjects of this text tend to take on the role of a reflexive subject as their reflections are articulated in an attempt to explain their involvement.
Evidence of these notions of reflexivity as experienced by the subject can be seen in the often times messy and obviously fictional accounts provided by many of the men. These accounts serve to both displace and deny the pure moral judgment of black and white, good and evil, typically placed on the perpetrators of the holocaust. Through these conflicting narrations it can be understood that the subjects of Browning’s work realize that the world is a social construction and attempt through linguistic communication to actually make and shape reality. These fictions indeed are the ethnographic memory contained in Ordinary Men and depict a creative engagement on the part of the police of the battalion. The quote above from the former metal worker is a good illustration of the subject reflexivity found within the Browning text. To most moral codes killing children is wrong but in the rationalization of the unnamed policeman above the act has been turned into an act of mercy and is therefore justifiable.
These experiences serve to remind us of the complex nature of politics especially politics that take place in a unique and hostility filled environment such as that of Germany and Poland in WWII. The multiple perspectives present in the text serve to remind the reader that we will never have a single “true” story of the holocaust and that the events that took place during this time continued to define a reality for those who took part decades later. The ethnographic data present in Ordinary Men is essential to looking at the situation portrayed in context.
Anarchism, Casas Viejas and Reflexivity​
The men of the reserve police battalion 101 in Poland during WWII are not alone in their role as reflexive subjects. Jerome Mintz’ text The Anarchists of Casas Viejas centers on the troubling setting of an Andalusian rural community early in the twentieth century. Like the subjects of the Browning text the peasant worker community of Casas Viejas take on a role in which they not only examine the events that they took part in but analyze the meaning and place of anarchist ideals in their lives. They too are not just describing the political world around them but contextualizing and shaping it in their attempt to narrate experience.
To understand the complexity and contradictions present in the Mintz text one has to first understand what it is the anarchists strived for and what their ideals encompassed. The anarchy movement developed out of a sense of betrayal that the peasants of Andalusia felt in regards to the authoritative institutitions that were governing their community. Workers were living lives of severe hardship where they toiled long hours for extremely low wages, education was a luxury that many parents did not have the means to provide their children with and the threat of starvation was a way of life. The state was viewed as being complacent in these daily struggles and as supporting the large land owners who exploited the peasant working class and the church in particular was viewed as a source of oppressive authority that did not contribute to the community.
A communal way of life was pinpointed as the solution to the troubles of the worker class in Casas Viejas. Local authority was viewed as preferable to a far away and removed authority or the sanctimonious and condemning authority of the church. Mintz aptly describes the ideology of the anarchist movement present in Casas Viejas in the introduction to his text:
“Rather than externally imposed order, spontaneous social action would prevail…Mankind would be revitalized by new forms of social behavior: Competition would be replaced by cooperation, religious indoctrination by scientific education, armed frontiers by open borders, national patriotism by international fraternization, religious and civil marriage by “free love,” and exclusive concern for individual welfare by a search for the common good.” (Mintz: 3)
The response to the morals and ideals presented by the anarchist movement to the subjects of the Mintz text however was not always that of fully fledged enthusiasm. This is an aspect of the anarchist movement that would not necessarily be readily apparent without the articulation of the people of Casas Viejas themselves; these people then take on the role of reflexive subject in an ethnography that aims to contextualize our understanding of their political circumstances. The Mintz text specifically gives us such narrations that are quoted from the subjects themselves and shed light on the complex, messy and often contradictory political ideals that became the anarchist movement of Casas Viejas.
Take for example the case of Jose Olmo. Olmo was a prominent figure in the anarchist movement of Casas Viejas and beyond; he was one of the first to bring the notions of the anarchist movement into an organized forerunner in the politics of the region. Olmo was highly regarded by the community as an example of the ideal anarchist; from virtually all standpoints he appeared to live his convictions. But as the yeas and months wore on Olmo was fingered as a leader of the troublesome anarchists by the authorities and had to face many reprisals, these included prison and the withholding of work. Olmo was therefore unable to support his family with the closing of the anarchist centro in Casas Viejas Olmo was a tragic figure. According to the articulation of Jose Monroy Olmo is said to have remarked: “I don’t have any work. I have a right to live just like the rest.” Monroy elaborates for us:
“He was tired, worn out by struggle. The people hadn’t done anything for him. The others were working, but he had no work. He (Olmo) said ‘If there are 100 men working, why can’t you see that he’s not working? Why can’t you say if he doesn’t work, we won’t work?’” (Mintz: 112)
With the fall of the centro Olmo went to nearby Medina Sidonia. What we can take from this example is the conflict between the reality of Casas Viejas and the political theory espoused by the anarchist centro. The anarchists talked of communal effort as the key to balancing the social order and class system but at the end of the day families had to be fed and work had to be taken where it could be found. And this often meant leaving fellow anarchists to their own resources, even leaders that were widely respected such as Jose Olmo.
The case of Casas Viejas and its anarchists, especially in the context of Jerome Mintz’ text, can be viewed as an opportunity to examine the development of a political movement through the experience of subjects that appear to be conflicting at times and who articulate for us the creative process through which politics are made. The people of Casas Viejas are seen trying to create a new social realm through a paraethnography of rhetoric and language.
Ethnography in Context & Over Time​
An ethnographic outlook can provide us with insight from multiple perspectives over a timeline that spans both the historical event in question itself as well as the process of contextualization and memorization that takes place in the years and decades after an event has occurred. It has been established that the subjects of both the Browning and Mintz texts are reflexive in their nature and this implies that they shape the reality concerning the respective events in both books both “in vivo” or while the process is unfolding and retrospectively. This serves to put the experiences detailed into a context that is often messy and seemingly contrary to common theory and opinion.
Both texts provide us with insights from multiple perspectives. In Ordinary Men differing outlooks can be seen appearing both over time and from different subjects. At the beginning of their assignment in Poland for example none of the men in Battalion 101 had taken part in a mass extermination. When it came time for them to take part in the massacre of Jozefow there were many men who chose to not take part or who later asked to be relieved of duty. An example of this is the Lieutenant Buchmann who asked for an alternative assignment upon learning the fate of the Jews of Jozefow. He said he “would in no case participate in an action in which defenseless women and children are shot.” (Browning: 56) As many as 13 other men also chose to step out of their assigned duty for the day upon hearing their orders. Another example is that of Franz Kastenbaum who recounted: “The shooting of the men was so repugnant to me that I missed the fourth man. It was simply no longer possible for me to aim accurately…rather that the first time I intentionally missed…Today I can say that my nerves were totally finished.” (Browning: 67-68)
Yet despite the many who refused or ended up excusing themselves from duty there were others who embraced their duties. Such as the Captain Hoffman who was “furious that one of his men had been the first to break ranks.” (Browning: 57) or the anonymous policemen who berated another as a “shithead” and “weakling” (Browning: 66) for not taking part in the executions. Such is the complexity of the perspectives that one deals with when looking at the Battalion 101 as presented in the Browning text. This complexity gets even messier as we look at the progress of the men over the course of their actions and consider the motivations they had in telling their stories and the very context of trials and court/legal transcripts that the accounts are taken from. It is clear that the historical context of the holocaust can contain radically different ways of constructing experience. To dissect this complexity and inherent messiness ethnography is essential to looking at a culture that is “in extremis” such as the one portrayed by Browning.
The role of ethnography in terms of historical context and the passage of time are also apparent in The Anarchists of Casas Viejas. It quickly becomes evident in the reading of the texts of both Mintz and Browning that in reality there is a stark difference between academic theories and lived experience. There is a complexity evident in the Mintz text that conflicts with and in some places outright contradicts contemporary theories of anarchism. This complexity is something that would not be readily apparent to a researcher unless they had a glimpse of the first hand experiences of the common anarchist supporter in Casas Viejas. The messiness involved in the activities and ideological formation of a rural anarchist group such as is seen in the Mintz text would not be readily apparent without an ethnographic approach; the narrative of lived experience is what brings this text to the forefront and allows us to look at reality through multiple and often conflicting perspectives.
For example while all of the workers it can be said ultimately wanted the same things: an eight hour day, better wages, overtime pay, etc not everyone would take part in the strikes organized by the anarchist syndicate to protest for these things. A prominent obstacle in this was the fijos who had relatively steady work and felt a sense of duty to their patrones. Pepe Pilar recounts: “There were many strikebreakers. They were mostly the older workers who had been raised in the house, and their fathers had been raised in the house as well….They had been raised in the house, and their fathers were raised there, and they knew nothing more than to betray their fellow workers.” (Mintz: 103) These strikebreakers symbolize the conflict that anarchism aroused not just between the social classes of patron, state, church and worker but between the workers themselves who at first glance have much in common. The difference in perspective between the fijos and others with less stable work is stark and was hard to negotiate for the syndicate.
Even those in the exact same position often met with clashes even between those of their own family. Pepe Pareja, the son of a small renter, tells us: “One has to suck on one teat; one cannot suck on two. If we work for out father and the other workers gain, can we take advantage of what they won? I had many disagreements with my father. He had one type of understanding, and I had another.” (Mintz: 104)
What the excerpts above help to illustrate is the difference in understanding in regards to the anarchist movement in Casas Viejas not just between classes that led a very different existence but also the moral questions that the professed ideals of anarchism aroused in the peasants. The questions that they were left to navigate were often complex and the solution not very clear. These questions caused gaps of understanding across the spectrum of both social position and generation.
Without the narratives that are found in the Mintz text the picture of anarchism in Andalusia and specifically Casas Viejas may seem clear, what these narratives reveal is the messiness inherent to the forming of political movement. These accounts are the material of an ethnography that reveals much more to the reader than empirical data would be able to. Abstraction is removed when then experiences of the anarchists are allowed to be examined and ethnography reveals how the subjects of Mintz’ study formed their own political and social world and articulate this world for us understand fully.
Ethnography and the Performative Nature of Politics​
Traditional scientific methods of studying social phenomena involve gathering empirical data and analyzing them mathematically. But when using an ethnographic standpoint these phenomena are captured and modeled linguistically through a “conceptual motor”. In the Mintz text we can clearly see the process through which new ideas are created in the political spectrum. The anarchists of Casas Viejas frequently use narrative as an instrument for igniting action while attempting to serve the ideals of their cause. In fact this performative process is used to mold these very ideals to the needs pre-existing ideas of the members of the movement.
There is a sense of deep injustice and mistrust in the language used by the anarchists in the Mintz text. These feelings existed in the community of Casas Viejas before the rise of the anarchist movement and were deeply rooted in the society due to the history of oppression the locals had experienced at the hands of not just the state and the wealthy few but also the church. In describing the past relations with the church in Casas Viejas there were many fears and anxieties expressed by the people as well as a deeply rooted resentment for past actions. There are many detailed for us in the Mintz text, one such account is that of Silvestre:
“They would knock on any door. The person inside would ask, ‘Who is it?’ And they would answer ‘The Holy Inquisition.’ Since there was so much fear the people would open up right away, and they would take from the house anything they wanted—the woman, the girl, or wheat, or bread, or whatever they wanted.” (Mintz: 76)
The feelings of animosity toward authority in Casas Viejas were, at least in part, due to a long history of oppression at the hands of those in positions of authority. It was this deep seated resentment that contributed to the strength and proliferation of the anarchist movement in the region.
Linguistic action was also used to not just articulate and form the ideals of the anarchist movement but also to spread the word. Jose Olmo and other successful leaders of the movement were well spoken of for using their oration skills to enflame the passions of the supporters:
“He was an orator, the fiercest there was. Once in the plaza, looking down toward the civil guard, who were there and could hear him, he said, ‘This force, the civil guard—assassins, murderers, cowards.’ One couldn’t resist his oratory.”
The anarchists of Casas Viejas are not just reflexive ethnographic subjects but they are found to be using notions of performativity by using linguistic notions not just to describe their world but to actively make and shape their world. Without looking at these subjects from an ethnographic standpoint it would not be possible to understand how they weave narrative together to shape political idioms into a social reality; nor would it be possible to understand such a complex, politically charged environment.
By studying the narrations and articulations of both the people of Casas Viejas and the police of Reserve Battalion 101 through an ethnographic lens we are better able to understand the complex reality of how political ideals as well as social reality are formed through the processes of performativity and reflexivity. This procedure is messy, chaotic and often seemingly contradictory but it is these very notions that make up the substance of historical and cultural context.