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Inside The President’s Studio – Sarah Green

 (click to listen)

Hosted by AAA President Virginia R. Dominguez, “Inside the President’s Studio” features interviews with anthropologists about their ideas, research and passions. It is part of an ongoing effort to foster public, visible and active engagement with anthropologists. Become a part of the conversation by reading and listening to the interviews, adding your comments to the blog, and suggesting people or topics for future pieces.

This month the studio features  Sarah Green, Program Chair, 2011 AAA Annual Meeting

(1) What are you most passionate about–in life? In your work?

People and their relations with one another, as well as their diverse perspectives on the world. I am almost as equally passionate about other animals and their relations, though that is more of a personal than a work passion. A quite distant third is a passion for logical problems; that one is at the heart of my interest in gadgets and various technologies.

(2) What were you like as a 10 year old? As a 13 year old?  As a 16 year old?  Rebellious? Studious? Popular? Shy? Intense?

Generally, my two brothers and I were seen as being ‘different,’ though in what way depended on who was looking. That’s probably a common experience for children who grow up outside the country to which their parents tell them they belong. Otherwise, my memories of my childhood are marked by political events:

As a 10 year old: I was living in central Athens, and it was two years before the end of the military junta under Georgios Papadoploulos. I was aware of it, and most people I knew thought it was bad. The overthrow of the junta in 1974, which centred in Athens, was the scariest thing through which I have ever lived.

As a 13 year old: I had arrived back in the UK the year before, when I was 12, after 10 years of living in Greece. This was the early 1970s, when there was a serious energy shortage in the UK imposed by the sudden steep rise in oil prices (I remember a 3-day working week was imposed, and we were constantly exhorted to ‘SOS’ – Switch Off Something).

As a 16 year old: In that year, I began to read academic books and was very quickly hooked.

(3) When and how did you first encounter anthropology? And when did you decide to embrace it as a profession? Do you remember the moment?

I knew about the existence of anthropology from a young age, because my mother had studied some anthropology at university (she later became an Egyptologist).

My decision to become an anthropologist was made more than once. The first was when, as an undergraduate studying both archaeology and anthropology, I shifted my attention more to anthropology.  The second was after my former director of studies at university persuaded me to apply for a scholarship to study for a PhD. That was a major decision.  Third, after completing the doctorate, I applied for a job as a post-doctoral research fellow and was awarded it. And finally, I applied for a permanent job at Manchester, and was appointed to a junior post in 1995. It was at that moment, I think, that I decided that perhaps my past in journalism and law (in both of which I dabbled after I graduated) were over.

Yes, when I first went to university, my idea was that I should become an archaeologist. In Greece, I was surrounded by material evidence of all the stories my father told about the Classical Greeks, which also brought alive his stories about the Romans, and my mother added to that with her knowledge of the Egyptians.

(4) I know that you spent much of your childhood in Greece and that your father is a classicist.  Did you grow up imagining yourself an archaeologist, visiting many archaeological sites in and around Greece, and reading the “classics”?  Do you ever think of yourself now as a “closet” archaeologist or a “wannabe” one?

However, once I got to university, I realised that my experience in Greece had highlighted the politically charged complexity of the relationship between the past and the present. I was aware that all the classicists I knew in Greece were, like my father, not Greeks, but scholars from other countries. It seemed to me there was something interesting going on there about how Greek Classical history had been written. Whatever it was about, it was not closely related to contemporary Greece; that just happened to be where the archaeological sites were located.  So, as I began to learn more about social anthropology through university, I came to the conclusion that this was where my deepest interests lay, and that this discipline could provide me with a means to think about those kinds of issues.

(5) Much of your own work over the years has engaged with space (urban, rural, national, regional, and international), and perhaps especially with ambiguous border zones that  matter to people, countries, and institutions but are never quite as clearly demarcated or separate as some imagine or hope.  Your 2005 book, Notes from the Balkans, is a great example of this type of work and you experimented with both the topic and the way to think about it.     How did you first come to think so much about these issues?  Do you remember your own trajectory of thought, in other words, how you came to think that this was such an interesting issue worth pursuing?

I became interested in the politics of space, place and location during my PhD research in London on radical and revolutionary feminist separatists.  Those women had a strong concept of ‘safe space,’ which meant safe from physical, emotional and ideological threats. My interest in the way location and place are used to create particular kinds of intellectually and politically coherent worlds really began with that work. At the time, queer was just developing within the lesbian and gay areas of London (which overlapped with the lesbian feminist areas). That introduced the idea of complex, dynamic, multiple, transgressive boundaries: these areas of London would later come to be known as LGBT space, emphasising the proliferation and transient character of the categories that these areas represented. The relationship between the shifting definition of locations and shifting politics became a central part of my work at that time.

The jump from there to an interest in what the media were describing as ‘Balkan’ borders in the early 1990s (when my research on the Greek-Albanian border in Epirus began), was quite short. Having watched as queer developed in London and began to change the shape of both lesbian and gay and feminist spaces there, I was alert to the possibility that borders are not just ‘there:’ they have to be made to appear as such. Studying that in terms of state borders was an intriguing new challenge. With the conflicts in former Yugoslavia and the collapse of socialist regimes more widely in the Balkan region during that period, important changes in the what borders were supposed to separate or bring together were going on. Although I was working in a border area that was not receiving any of the media attention (the Greek-Albanian border), people assumed it was all part of the same region, the ‘Balkan’ region, and had some similar characteristics. I became quite interested in what those might be, in such an apparently rapidly changing context.

To cut a long story short, I ended up concluding that the perceived difficulty with the Greek-Albanian border was what the border was supposed to stand for. Most borders research focuses on people’s identities. It was clear to me that this was not the issue here: nobody I met had any doubt about who they were, where they came from or to which social group they belonged. The problem was the effectiveness of the border in defining the places simultaneously brought into relation and separated from each other by that border. The ambiguity emanated from there, not from the people.

(6) Your earliest work on radical lesbians in the London metropolitan area, at least on the surface, looks different from your later work on IT technology and space in Manchester and your work on mountains, animals, people, states, surveyors, and expectations at the Greek-Albanian border.  Some might say that it was part of sexuality or gender studies and that you now do science studies (with little reference to sexuality or gender studies concerns).  Does the question bother you?  Am I wrong to assume that some people wonder about the change in your interests.    Did you just become interested in a different set of issues and questions after your immediate postdoctoral years, or is there some continuity in the work that is less obvious to others until they get to know you?

Hah, that is a fair question, and in some ways, I think I have already begun to answer it above.  The theme of the politics of relative location has been in my work since the earliest days. However diverse my subject matter has been, that core interest has remained. I have a couple of things to add here:

First, though I have worked in several regions, I have kept to the intellectual or geographical edges of what most people consider to be ‘Europe. ’ I think there is still work to be done on the self-other relation/distinction in anthropology (and whatever people think of dichotomies, that one is unlikely to go away simply because dichotomisation has been effectively critiqued; there is too much invested in this particular, self/other, dichotomy).  If many anthropologists are concerned with difference, I am also, and equally, concerned with sameness, and where the limits of sameness are located.  This inevitably includes investigating anthropology’s own intellectual homes, and how the discipline has constituted the notion of self.

Which brings me back to the point about historical and political change: is it not reasonable to think that perhaps both self and other are conceptually and spatially moving targets?  This has not been debated to the degree that I think it should have been.

Second, all my research after my doctorate has been done collaboratively.  In order to do that, I have had to be flexible about where the next research project will take me. So long as I could maintain a clear sense of my own questions, and could see that I had the opportunity to develop them within the framework of one or other collaborative project, then I went with that. In a sense, this is just taking what happens during ethnographic fieldwork one step further: although there is a plan about what needs researching, ethnographers are usually dependent on whatever people are doing, and they have to go with the flow, in order to get any decent data. I am much the same with entire research projects: I negotiate them with others, and if we can agree a theme that would work for my research questions, I pursue it and go with the flow.

(7) What makes you mad, and is that an easier question to answer than what makes you sad or what makes you satisfied or what fills you with joy?

What makes me mad (angry, rather than crazy, I take it): very little. One of the things I have learned as an ethnographer is to try to understand someone else’s point of view, and as soon as I do that, any nascent anger tends to dissipate.

Nevertheless, the following invariably get my heckles up: political attacks against research and higher education that appear to be developed from a position of nearly complete ignorance; people who do or say things that are deliberately intended to harm, belittle or undermine others; any act of cruelty towards people or animals whose sole motivation is entertainment, or which is caused by indifference.

What makes me sad: in personal terms, the most important is the loss of good friends, either through their passing away or their physical or social distance. In a wider sense, I am saddened by what could be called the turn towards financialization: increasingly, something is only officially defined as being good if it makes financial sense – either in addition to its ‘social good’ status, or as a complete replacement of that status.

What makes me satisfied/fills me with joy: Mostly, small everyday things that involve either managing to do something that seemed impossible at first; or that somehow improved things for one or more people; or witnessing small acts of kindness or thoughtfulness; or that is aesthetically beautiful to watch, listen to or feel. Finding enough time to sleep, exercise properly and eat properly makes me satisfied.

(8) Do you think of yourself as British?  I know that people who know you in the U.K. (and many who will listen to our oral interview) will think of this as an odd question because you sound so British (perhaps especially to Americans).  But you grew up so transnationally and you live your life now in and out of so many countries that I am not sure what role your U.K. citizenship and passport play in the way you lead your life, think of yourself, or take on scholarly research projects (like the 25-country project on borders in Europe that you currently run).

That’s an interesting question. There has been an ongoing debate in recent years in the UK about what it means for anyone to be English (as opposed to British), which has been prompted in part by the devolution of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. So the issue is a bit of a moving target.

Some would say I am quintessentially English.  There is a now fading rhetoric in Britain about English cosmopolitanism: the idea that one section of the English population (this is a class issue, of course) should be able to travel anywhere and adapt, as a key characteristic of Englishness. My parents and grandparents were deeply committed to these cosmopolitan ideals, and felt themselves to belong to the social group that lived this kind of life. So as I was growing up in Greece, my parents taught me that I was English; and that I should learn to be as Greek as any other Greek, as part of being English.

(9) Birds and other animals at airports?  Some 3-4 years ago at a dinner we had in Manchester you mentioned a research project you started (or did) that concerned birds and other animals at airports.  I remember being fascinated and thinking that you must have a great eye/ear for phenomena worth pursuing (and not being pursued sufficiently by scholars).  Do others tell you the same thing?  Do you sometimes get odd stares from people who think (or say) that your topics are “unusual,” possibly even “marginal,” fascinating but not “central” topics for social science research, or even just not anthropological enough?

Yes, this has been something people have said about me way before I became an anthropologist. I remember taking a job as a temporary secretary one summer. I was obviously bored, as at one point I stared up at the ceiling and saw it was covered with those noise-reducing white ceiling tiles. Each one had a pattern of holes in it – a kind of swirly design. I wondered aloud whose job it was to design those patterns, and whether the particular pattern chosen was related to functional or aesthetic design considerations.  After that, I gained a reputation amongst the other secretaries in that office of being a distinctly peculiar person. But several of them did also stare up at the ceiling on several occasions after that.

My family says I never quite grew out of having the curiosity of a 2-year old. Everything interests me and I am endlessly asking questions about things, people, situations. I also spent a lot of my childhood observing things intensely; this was in large part because I was the youngest child of three in an extremely chatty family, and I often did not get the chance to get a word in edgeways.  So I watched and listened to everything instead, and learned to notice even the tiniest details. That stood me in very good stead in later years as an ethnographer.

(10) In a very recent email exchange you and I had about some logistical matters concerning the 2011 AAA Annual Meeting in Montreal this coming November (which I am truly delighted you agreed 2 years ago to run/lead at my request), you described yourself as somewhat of a “nerd.”  You made me smile.  Can you describe what it is about you (and perhaps the things you enjoy doing) that make you think of yourself this way?  (And, by the way, is this a term used in the U.K. and not just in the U.S. and I think Canada)?   Also, is this one of the reasons you accepted my presidential invitation 2 years ago to be the lead/organizer/head/guru for our 2011 AAA Annual Meeting in Montreal?

This goes back to the third passion I have in life and work: logical problems. It is what led me into a brief encounter with the legal profession (which combined my interest in logic and anthropology) and it is also what gives me an enduring fascination with various gadgets and technologies. It is not what made me say ‘yes’ to the job of being AAA EPC Chair; that was more to do with being supportive of your aim of further internationalising the AAA, combined with hoping that people from my research network, EastBordNet, would choose to attend. But what I call my ‘nerdy’ tendencies probably did contribute to my agreement to take on the role: I imagined that my fascination with logical problems would help in dealing with something this size. And so it has turned out.

Just returning to EastBordNet for a moment, that network is a breath of fresh air: I am constantly being prodded in the ribs to think differently, and while that is sometimes painful, it has also been enormously productive.  And as I said, it is a big reason I agreed to be the AAA EPC Chair; I thought I could persuade a few unusual voices to come to the AAA – from Russia, Croatia, Serbia, Latvia, etc.  And some have decided to come, much to my delight.  However, the costs have made it very difficult for others. The really enormous difference in academic income levels in some of these countries compared with the USA, and the virtual absence of money to attend conferences, continues to make it difficult for them to participate on anything like a level playing field.

(11) What is one thing that only close friends know about you that you are now willing to share with others?

I do not like walking. When people list their hobbies, walking almost always seems to be there, which I find mildly baffling. Running, cycling, swimming, climbing, scuba diving, horse riding – I love them all. But walking, not.

(12) What do you love to do when you are not working?  Do you sing, paint, play a musical instrument, read detective stories, hike, do math puzzles, play poker, or stare at the stars?  The list could be much longer, of course.  I do not even want to guess.  

My five most common activities when I’m not working are: spending time with friends, which includes going to galleries, the movies and theatre (I am not a great fan of concerts); reading news and reviews (I am a big fan of the London Review of Books); getting some exercise (running and swimming are my favourites); cooking – which includes the associated shopping for the right ingredients, as I love markets and delicatessens; and learning some new skill, most frequently languages (I am currently struggling with Turkish, but I enjoy the struggle), or some new software package.

(13) What is the single most unexpected and interesting aspect of taking on the huge organizational task of envisioning, organizing, and orchestrating a 6000-person strong scholarly/professional conference (like our AAA Annual Meeting)?  Are anthropologists actually trained to do this type of thing, or is it quite a stretch for people who are not conference planners and organizers by training and definition?  I think you are really good at it, but does it have anything to do with the kind of training you got at the university level or the people who trained you and mentored you?  Can you identify what that was or could be?

It’s not finished yet, so there might be something yet to come. So far, there have been two unexpected aspects. First, that it’s not been quite as impossible as I imagined it would be, which has been mostly because of the support I have received from just about every quarter: the AAA office in Washington, the section editors, the Executive Program Committee, the people at Confex who run the online system, and, most importantly, from you as President. And second, that there were many people who were as uncertain about how it all works as I was! In retrospect, that should not have been unexpected, as most academic participants in the organization of the meeting have quite a short term of office, so many people are new.

In terms of training for this job: really, just having good organization skills and some experience in working with a lot of different people to tight deadlines. If there is one thing that has improved with age for me, it’s that I no longer panic. That’s certainly been helpful!

(14) What is the one question you wish I had asked but didn’t?

None about myself, I don’t think.

A question about what is happening in anthropology more widely, perhaps. Like many others, I am very concerned about attacks against the social sciences and humanities in many parts of the world.  This is often done in the name of financial stringency, but to my mind it is related more to the financialisation issue I mentioned above: that there is no such thing as a social good irrespective of cost anymore. In the UK, I think we are in an exceptionally dangerous period for academic freedom and for the protection and maintenance of higher education and research structures.

I suspect this period will lead to some fairly significant changes, and some heart-searching debates, about how anthropology is done, who anthropology is for and how it relates to other things going on in the world. That is a real challenge, but I think it could also be a very positive moment: when the deck of cards gets thrown up in the air as has occurred just now, opportunities arise to rearrange the cards in interesting ways – but only if people are consciously aware of the current dangers and positively work towards finding our own ways of dealing with them, rather than having our lives and work redesigned by others who were quicker off the mark. If there is one thing that I currently feel passionate about, it is that.

One Response

  1. [...] series this summer. The oral interview is on the AAA website along with an abridged version of our written Q and A on the blog, but I want to make some of the original Q and A from June 10, 2011 available here as [...]

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