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  • Culture in Chaos: An Anthropology of the Social Condition in War
  • Harri Englund
Stephen L. Lubkemann. Culture in Chaos: An Anthropology of the Social Condition in War. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008. xi + 401 pp. Map. References. Index. Notes. $63.00. Cloth. $25.00. Paper.

Between 1995 and 2002, Stephen Lubkemann conducted interviews in the Machaze District of Mozambique’s Manica Province, the provincial capital Chimoio, the Zimbabwean towns of Chipinge and Mutare, and the Vaal region of South Africa. He also carried out research in the Mozambican Historical Archives in Maputo. The principal result of this multi-sited and historical ethnography is a nuanced account of migration as a social process that both preceded and shaped the popular experiences of war among the people Lubkemann calls “Machazians.” He traces the development of labor migration throughout the twentieth century and shows the importance of [End Page 168] migration for Machazians’ variable senses of displacement and postconflict returns and dilemmas. As such, the book is driven by broader ambitions to conceptualize war and displacement in ways that do not make physical violence the centerpiece of analysis.

Whereas one strand in the historiographical debate on Mozambique’s postindependence war has examined whether the RENAMO insurgents’ lack of ideology could generate local legitimacy, Lubkemann argues here that it was precisely their lack of any program for the central state that initially appealed to people in Machaze. The first few years after independence had seen Machazian living conditions deteriorate, and the FRELIMO government’s relocation orders were generally seen as intrusive. Although the majority of the district’s residents opted to live in areas under RENAMO’s influence, and the use of coercion was at first minimal, Lubkemann argues that the relationship between the population and the insurgents was one of mutual misrecognition. Whereas RENAMO’s leadership wanted to replace the state, Machazians wished to banish it. As the war wore on, the similarities between the insurgents and the government became all too apparent to the local population.

Among Lubkemann’s conceptual tools are “structural violence” and “fragmented wars,” deployed to drive home the point that war is not necessarily a phenomenon distinct from the condition of non-war. This argument is linked to Lubkemann’s broader interest in “warscape agency” among refugees and those left behind. Rather than seeing their agency as purely reactive to the extraordinary condition of war, Lubkemann seeks to uncover longer-term patterns and strategies in the way Machazians pursued their life courses under adverse conditions.

He treads a well-trodden anthropological path, not only assiduously reading previous English-language scholarship on the Mozambican war but also drawing on the insights of authors such as Sharon Hutchinson, Paul Richards, and Harry West, while Carolyn Nordstrom’s racy generalizations provide a useful counterpoint. Yet his theoretical interest in agency seems a little curious in a book that, with the exception of the two final chapters, builds on somewhat disembodied excerpts from interviews rather than on case studies. It also leads to a rather obsolete theoretical concern with the individual, by-passing the question of why some authors have found fault with the individual–society dichotomy. Moreover, some readers may find it hard to reconcile the book’s grandiose title with its lack of sustained comparison beyond Mozambique. However, students and other newcomers to the anthropology of armed conflict in Africa will welcome its lucid discussion of existing scholarship.

Lubkemann’s original contribution lies in his account of migration. By decoupling the notion of “lifescape” from “place,” Lubkemann is able to show how the pursuit of life courses can span multiple places and depend on the processes that link them. For example, problematizing the term displacement, Lubkemann argues that wartime immobility could be far more [End Page 169] disruptive than wartime mobility, with “displacement in place” reducing life chances in a way that more mobile persons were able to avoid. He also has a good deal to say about transnational polygyny among Machazian men who kept households in both South Africa and Mozambique, leading to a subtle discussion of marriage, gender relations, and the dilemmas of repatriation.

Harri Englund
University of Cambridge
Cambridge, U. K.


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pp. 168-170
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