Keynote Speakers

Gary Alan Fine

Devoted Strangers: Managing Detachment in Skeptical Ethnography

Much contemporary ethnography hopes to engage with a community to justify social critique. Whether from problem selection, interpersonal rewards, or a desire for exchange, researchers often take the “side” of informants. Such an approach marginalizes a once-traditional approach to fieldwork: that of the ethnographic stranger. I discuss the model of supportive engagement and present a model of scholarly detachment and questioning of group interests. Drawing on my own experiences and those of members of the Second Chicago School, I argue for an approach in which an unaffiliated observer questions community interests, arguing that skepticism of local explanations can discover processes shared by other scenes and can develop trans-situational concepts. While the ethnographer can be seduced into sharing a group’s perspective, observational distancing can mitigate this. In an approach I label skeptical ethnography, the ethnographic stranger avoids partisan allegiance in the field and at the desk. Skepticism of local interests must be combined with an epistemic generosity that recognizes that all action, whether seemingly righteous or repellent, responds to an interaction order.

G.A. Fine is James E. Johnson Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University.

Gary’s current research has four distinct streams. He is interested in understanding difficult reputations and problematic collective memories of figures such as Joseph McCarthy, Charles Lindbergh, Warren Harding, and Benedict Arnold. This research was most recently published in Sticky Reputations: The Politics of Collective Memory in Midcentury America (2012). His current research involves shifting reputations and political positions of Southern segregationist politics and the examination of ruptures in political alliances. As an ethnographer he has recently published a book (Players and Pawns) on worlds of competitive chess, examining the development of status systems and reputation markets. He currently has a book in press on how visual art students receive professional socialization, through identity work and presentations of aesthetic intentions. His current ethnographic project involves observations of senior citizen progressive activists and the way in which history and experiences shapes social movements. His third stream of research involves the interpretation of rumor and contemporary legend, particularly political and economic rumor. Fine is the author of The Global Grapevine: Why Rumors of Terrorism, Immigration and Trade Matter (2010). Finally, he writes on microsociological theory, focusing on small group culture, and has recently published Tiny Publics: A Theory of Group Culture and Action (2012). He is currently working on a book, The Hinge, about the role of small groups in civil society.

Laleh Khalili

The Corporeal Life of Commerce at Sea 

The everyday life of seafarers steaming across Arab seas and serving Arab ports today is shaped not only by their daily interactions with one another and with their officers (who are often of other nationalities), but also by the corporeal transformations they experience in their sensory relationship with the sea and the stars, the weather, and the technology around them. The body of the seafarer is the fulcrum upon which global and workplace asymmetries of power, long traditions and conventions of seafaring, and gendered and racialised subjectivities all conjoin in complex and unexpected ways. I will speak not only of wages stolen and hunger ships managed by rapacious and unregulated shipping companies or the affective power of loneliness and loss at sea, but also the ephemeral moments of joy and solidarity forged aboard ships, and of the pleasures of arrival at ports. In focusing on the corporeal life of commerce at sea, I pay heed to exhortations of feminists and scholars of racial capitalism to centre the lives of those forgotten or dismissed at the conjuncture of capital accumulation and raced and gendered hierarchies. 
Inspired by both the literary and scholarly works, in this lecture, I will reflect on the lives and bodies of modern seafarers in the western Indian Ocean. Drawing on ethnography aboard containerships steaming Arab seas, the archives of various missions to seafarers serving Arabian Peninsula ports, local and global union cases on their behalf, and other literary and archival documents in Arabic and English, I will consider the quotidian life of labour, tedium, longing, and camaraderie aboard ships today. Perhaps most important, I will show that to think about commerce at sea, we have to locate the Arab world’s economy in a global network of capital accumulation, and to seek in the macropolitical sweep of history the human-sized, the everyday, the embodied experience, and the affective lives of the people who make such commerce possible. 

Laleh Khalili is Professor of International Politics at Queen Mary College, University of London.

Laleh has worked extensively on transnational movements: of colonial forms of power and violence, of resistance, of ideas and practices, of people, and now of capital and cargo. She has addressed analyses of gender, racialisation, political violence and political economy. She has examined the representations and practices of violence in Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: the Politics of National Commemoration (Cambridge 2007) and Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgency (Stanford 2013) as well as in the co-edited volume with Jillian Schwedler, Policing and Prisons in the Middle East: Formations of Coercion (Hurst 2010). He new book, Sinews of War and Trade (Verso 2020), examines the role of maritime infrastructures as conduits of movement of technologies, capital, people and cargo. Laleh’s work draws on archival and ethnographic methods and she has also conducted interviews with bureaucrats, military officers, former prisoners, refugees, and guerrillas. Her geographic area of interest is the Arab world, and she speaks and reads Arabic and Persian.