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Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology

Research

Our Institute’s research focuses on ‘global vulnerabilities and social resilience’. Specifically, we highlight three interconnected themes: diversity, sustainability, and digitalisation.

Our world is becoming increasingly fragile both economically and ecologically, with environments damaged by pollution or disaster and the rights of citizens eroded. However, despite growing instability, people continue to survive and remain hopeful. What strategies are they developing to maintain continuity while surrounded by uncertainty? How do they acquire the resilience to cope in a changing world? 

In Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology, we explore these questions through three interconnected themes: 

  1. Diversity, which encompasses social (in)equality, (individual and collective) responsibility, social cohesion, religion, cultural identity,  race,  gender, discrimination, belonging,  democracy, and migration.
     
  2. Sustainability, including the ability of local groups to achieve not only material (food, water, soil, energy, climate, transformations in livelihood) but also socio-cultural sustainability (heritage, identity).
     
  3. Digitalisation, a core driver of recent globalisation that connects individuals and groups in ways significantly impacting local coping strategies. In this increasingly interconnected world, social scientists must adopt new digital tools and research methodologies to both participate in changing media ecologies and mediate anthropological knowledge.

Examples

Cristina Grasseni’s project Food citizens? Collective food procurement in European cities: solidarity and diversity, skills and scale examines the premises and consequences of collective food acquisition in three European cities (Rotterdam, Turin and Gdańsk).

Food as a mediator of citizenship 

Considerable attention goes to ‘smart’ urban food procurement, with little notice of the cultural diversity within Europe. For a growing urban population (80% by 2050), food is a mediator of relations within social networks, not only a commodity or nutrient. Eaters are not just consumers but social actors whose meaning-making depend on faith, gender, age, income, or kinship. How we procure and share food is thus central to cultural understandings of citizenship: the project studies in-depth nine cases of collective food procurement across three European cities, asking if collective food procurement networks indicate emerging forms of ‘food citizenship’, or if they concomitantly co-produce hegemonic notions of participation and belonging – and either way, how. Conceptually, the project aims to deliver a critical theory of food citizenship, adding a ‘meso’ level of sociocultural analysis to food scenarios, which mostly focus on the ‘macro’ (food systems) or ‘micro’ (individual deliberations and habituated reflexes) scale.

Sustainability in three European cities 

Challenging stereotypical imaginaries of European urbanites, multilevel comparison in Rotterdam, Turin and Gdańsk will investigate three types of collective food procurement networks (a. urban foraging; b. short food chains; c. local food governance) in post-industrial cities, considering the dimensions of solidarity, diversity, skill and scale of action. Ethnographically, we investigate how collective food procurement networks engage with sustainability issues in practical terms and through food: Which skills do they acquire or lack? How do they operate across and within diverse communities? Do they scale ‘up’ or ‘out’, and how? 

Digitalisation as a method 

Methodologically, we match in-depth fieldwork observation with participants’ narratives, using pioneering digital visual media to deliver collaborative and immersive ‘thick descriptions’ of their experiences and trajectories. How do they interpret and articulate ‘solidarity’? How can multiple and even contradictory narrative be faithfully represented and navigated? Societal and local government stakeholders have granted access and will benefit from comparative insights.

Mark Westmoreland is a visual anthropologist with particular research interests in the interface between sensory embodiment and media aesthetics in on-going legacies of contentious politics. He has a longstanding project that considers how experimental documentary practices in the context of Lebanon’s contemporary art scene have played a crucial role in shifting the codes of documentary evidence in order to articulate experiences of living during recurrent and often mundane experiences of catastrophe rather than isolated moments of spectacular violence. 

Since the 2011 Arab uprisings, he has been tracing the emerging aesthetics of cell phone filmmaking in relation to claims about the revolutionary potential of new social media. Attune to the affective qualities of cellular mobility and interconnectivity, this research examines the emergence of collectivities at the interface between individualized acts of recording mass social movements and the mass infrastructure of Web 2.0 serving as a platform for personal expression. Both of these projects inform a critical evaluation of contemporary archival practices and the social history of images in the Middle East. 

These projects also inform the development of new experimental visual methodologies for doing visual research amid contentious political conditions and exploring the epistemological possibilities and “productive irritants” at the intersection between art, ethnography, and politics. As such, my work combines the tradition of ethnographic filmmaking with new digital practices in order to cultivate interdisciplinary visual research methods and the development of peer review criteria for image-based scholarship.

Digitalization

The Citizenship in a Digital Age research project explores if and how digital technology impacts the way people experience citizenship. The project is based on in-depth ethnographic research (long-term participation and analysis) of citizen projects in the San Francisco Bay Area and internationally. By working closely with citizens who are trying to transform key aspects of the political structures that they encounter in their daily lives, the project assesses how important the role of digital technology is, and if and how these technologies might impact the way people understand and experience citizenship. The research is organized around four main research sub-questions: 1) Which mobile internet and/or networked forms of digital technology are being used by citizens? 2) How often and for what purposes do they use these technologies? 3) Which claims of ‘substantive’ citizenship – rights, equality and participation – are emerging within these citizen projects? And 4) How do citizens use digital technology to pursue these claims? The main methodology of this research has been to take on an active role within the citizen projects by participating in the groups’ activities and to analyse information from the social networking and online platforms used by the selected citizen projects.

Diversity

This research is interested in whether digital technology could mediate in the ways that citizenship is differentiated (made unequal along lines of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, income, etc). Do internally diverse groups of people use and experience technology in different ways? Do people use technology differently when they are appealing to a local audience instead of a global one? How do groups trying to impact their immediate community draw on transnationally circulating discourses to assert their citizenship rights? The research is interested in how digital technologies are used by citizens to assert their own definitions and notions of citizenship in a way that expands the audience created through the use of physical space. Additionally, the research traces the way citizens develop political strategies and media infrastructures that transform the power and meaning of the digital tools they use. And finally, the research explores how the different political aims and organizational structures of each group impact both the selection of technologies as well as how and for which purposes the chosen technologies are mobilized.

Sustainability

A key theme that runs through all of Maeckelbergh's research is the question: how sustainable are contemporary forms of democratic governance? A key finding of this research project is the realisation that an unexpected 'value' is more central to the research participants' notion of citizenship than the researcher had originally proposed – this central value is that of 'property' and the role that property plays as a building block of democratic governance. Property is a central theme in the literature on citizenship and democracy, but the literature tends to view property as a positive and essential component of citizenship rights while the citizens at the heart of this research project view it as an obstacle to the attainment of 'full' citizenship. Placing the notion of property central in the analysis of how citizenship is established through daily democratic practice, and exploring the contrast between how the literature views property relations and how citizens themselves view property, will significantly further our understanding of how citizenship functions, how and why differentiated citizenship persists, and what these developments mean for the sustainability of democratic politics. The theme of “Property and Democratic Citizenship” has therefore become the main focus of future research project(s) by Marianne Maeckelbergh.

Global vulnerabilities and social resilience 

Through our thematic and topical research programmes, Leiden Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology also contributes to two of the research focus areas of Leiden University as a whole: Global interactions; people, culture and power through the ages, as well as Asian Modernities and Traditions.

Networks and cooperations

Both on a personal and institutional level, the staff of Leiden CA/DS collaborates with: 

For our individual research projects, see CADS Research Projects.

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