ADI Academic Profiles - Stine Simonsen Puri and Lars Højer

 By Kasper Ørntoft Thor, Asian Dynamics Initiative

ADI - Academic Profiles series puts spotlight on individual researchers working on Asia related issues in the social sciences and humanities, and promotes remarkable publications and innovative research projects.

Escalations: A Comparative Ethnographic Study of Accelerating Change

Lars HøjerStine Simonsen Puri

Within the last decade, the world has witnessed a number of escalations sparked by decisive yet often unremarkable events. These escalations are rarely anticipated and their outcomes are almost always unpredictable. Their tremendous effects, however, are beyond question. In the project entitled Escalations: A Comparative Ethnographic Study of Accelerating Change, post doc Stine Simonsen Puri and associate professor Lars Højer of the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies seek – with a group of colleagues – to understand and theorize these escalating processes from an anthropological perspective.  

The project is funded by the Danish Research Council for Independent Research Ɩ Humanities.

What is the aim of the project, and how would you define escalations?

Lars: Escalations have never previously been studied or theorized as such. They usually start with a triggering event that changes things in a radical way. This initiates an accelerating process that draws other things into their hurricane-like circuit. Recent examples would include the Arab Spring, the Financial Crisis, or the Cartoon Controversy. What we want to do in this project is to look at such processes that we believe may be thought of as escalations and explore them ethnographically.

Stine: Talking about escalations, as mentioned we have the prime examples of the Financial Crisis and the Arab Spring. The word 'escalation' is often used to describe such changes where everything hits off. But what is the actual meaning of the word? What do we mean when we talk about escalations?

Lars: Although it is a popular concept, it has not been properly thought about. Looking at an event such as the Arab Spring, it is obvious that during the process a lot of changes were set in motion. But this was not a straightforward, linear process, and the changes were not necessarily what you would expect them to be. So in our understanding, there is always a certain amount of unpredictability in escalations.

Stine: Also, we are trying to establish a different way of theorizing some forms of change. You have certain ways of thinking about change: as a step from one thing to another, a development from here to there. We want to rethink the way we perceive how certain forms of changes come about. So it is also a comment on existing theories of change.

 As part of the project Escalations: A Comparative Ethnographic Study of Accelerating Changeboth Lars and Stine are working on individual subprojects that relate to escalations. Stine's project, entitled Monsoonal Escalations in India and Beyond, will explore escalations at the interface between agriculture, climate and finance in relation to the monsoon in India. Lars' project, entitled Mining frenzy and escalating economies in Mongoliawill explore how the imaginings of a future mining project in Mongolia becomes an imagined and 'spectacular' reference point that intensifies and escalates present actions and imaginations. The third subproject, carried out by Anja Kublitz (Aalborg University), will deal with the effects of the Arab Spring among Muslims living in housing projects in Denmark. Affiliated subprojects are carried out by Andreas Bandak (ToRS) on the social life of prayer among Syrian Christian refugees in the context of the Syrian crisis and by Stine Krøijer (Anthropology) on the political life of trees – and conflicts related to this – in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

How is the current project connected to your previous work?

Lars: The idea started with a paper I wrote in relation to another project on the Uyghur diaspora in Europe and Central Asia, that was part of a larger project entitled Alternative Spaces. The idea in this paper was that mistrust and discourses of “spying”, so prevalent in so-called authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, were not confined to the space of China alone, but actually travelled and moved abroad and infiltrated even Uyghur communities living outside China. So even among Uyghurs living in Central Asia and Europe you see accusations of spying within the Uyghur community itself. In a way, the “totalitarian” logics could be said to escalate. Andreas Bandak, who is also strongly involved in the project on Escalations, suggested that I should use “Escalations” as a title for this paper and then the idea developed from there – and changed in the process. Also, I have previously done work on mining in Mongolia with a focus on political culture and have also worked on “curses” that contains escalation-like dynamics.

Stine: I did my PhD on gambling in New Delhi, India, based on fieldwork at the Delhi racecourse. In my current project I study price escalations in India tied to speculations on crops dependent on the monsoon. This is linked to my previous work in two ways. One way is because the actual area I might go to do my fieldwork, is a place known for gambling on the monsoon rainfall. The other is in terms of odds, which I dealt with in my PhD dissertation. My focus on price escalations in this current project is tied to this interest in odds and sudden escalations in odds, and I am trying to understanding both these economic processes as social phenomena that can be studied partly through ethnographic methods.

Lars: The notion of escalations of course touches upon a lot of different fields, but we take as our starting point anthropology and anthropological methods to investigate it.

Stine: Until now, changes have often been understood as happening within certain domains. In our project, we are trying to look at changes, or escalations, as happening within a lot of different domains simultaneously.  

Lars: Just as in escalations there is a certain amount of unpredictability, in our view the characteristics of escalations is that they cannot be defined within one single domain. Economy, politics, religion; escalations draw them all in. Similarly, in this project we try to move the perspective away from the respective regions that we each deal with, that is, Denmark, Mongolia, and India, to simultaneously try to identify escalations in specific settings and as a general phenomenon.

Apart from Lars’ and Stine’s project, other academic projects have been set in motion recently that all try to deal with changes and escalations within different frameworks. In Lars’ and Stine’s minds, the existence of these projects goes to show that there is a sense in the world that changes are now happening in a different way, and that there is, as they put it, “an academic urgency” to respond to it. Having just started the project, it still stands at a fairly theoretical level. But the future prospects of the projects are clear: it may be crucial for understanding the dynamics of the sudden and rapid changes emerging in the 21st century.

ADI would like to thank Stine Simonsen Puri and Lars Højer for featuring in this interview.

April 2015