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  • Ethnography in Unstable Places: Everyday Lives in Contexts of Dramatic Political Change
  • David Eaton
Ethnography in Unstable Places: Everyday Lives in Contexts of Dramatic Political Change. By Carol J. Greenhouse. Durham: Duke Univeristy Press, 2002. 1

How can ethnography deepen our understanding of societies undergoing transformations of state power? This fine volume draws from research across several continents on the mutual constitution of states and subjectivities in circumstances of social change.

The volume’s ten case studies and three theoretical commentaries are grouped in four sections. In the first, “Law against Culture,” researchers explore situations in which participants’ working categories of law and security prove inadequate to their precarious situations. Carroll Lewin conveys how understandings of labor, order, and responsibility were subverted and transformed into means of genocide through the choices forced upon Jewish ghetto leaders in Nazi-occupied Poland. Robert Gordon describes how vagrancy law in colonial South West Africa (now Namibia) provided an illusion of a normative social order in this weakly administered settler state. Howard De Nike probes the political dimensions of legal interpretation in shifting terrains of historical and moral judgment, examining the contested lives of judges and prosecutors in the former German Democratic Republic who have been disbarred in post-unification reviews.

In the second section, “Ethnographies of Agency in the Fissures of the State,” the first two studies theorize decentered and plural forms of social practice which supersede physical sites and formal institutions. Stacia Zabusky’s lively essay shows how European space scientists in the Netherlands improvise productivity in complex and continually destabilized “gyres” of activity. Phillip Parnell, studying land and housing disputes in one of Manila’s largest squatter settlements, proposes a “composite” Philippine state formed as residents’ competing claims engage officials in pragmatic negotiation of community problems.

Two further studies in this section portray vulnerable subjects struggling to influence change as they are exposed to the violence of hegemonic institutions. Elizabeth Faier’s ethnography of Palestinian women activists in Israel reveals how these women, doubly marginalized by their nationality and gender, risked their lives opening spaces outside the state through their participation in public service organizations. James M. Freeman and Nguyen Dinh Huu document how the UN High Commission for Refugees often ignored the brutal treatment of child refugees forcibly returned to Vietnam, justifying its procedures with essentialized notions of family and culture.

In the third section, “Resistance and Remembrance,” we see how complex regional histories are made manifest, acted upon, and transformed in ways which construct spaces of relative autonomy and resistance. Eve Darian-Smith considers the resurgence of a local ritual of walking and marking neighborhood boundaries in communities of Kent County, England, newly exposed to European integration through the completion of the Channel Tunnel. Nancy Ries recounts narratives of Russians caught in post-Soviet social crisis, situating the choices and rationalizations of individuals amidst the systemic transformations which their stories—of murders, miracles, and cults of money—attempt to explain. Judy Rosenthal considers how voodoo spirit possession in southern Togo—embodying reciprocity with ancestral slave spirits from the north—operates as a form of political resistance through continually renewed transgression, deconstruction, and re-creation of hierarchy and identity.

Reflections by Elizabeth Mertz and Kay Warren in the book’s final section, “Conclusion,” complement the book’s introduction written by Carol Greenhouse. All three of these commentaries explore the implications of recognizing instability, fragmentation, and change as pervasive in contemporary societies. As Mertz observes, it is under such conditions that routines and institutions are thrown into question, the role of performance and improvisation in all social life becomes most evident, and we can clearly perceive the inadequacy of standard categories of social science to characterize relationships and events. Warren draws on her own research on state terrorism to ask how we can analyze and critique the ways in which apparent stability is constructed and normalized, and represent the interplay of conflicting rationalities in often unequal social encounters.

Although it falls first in the book’s physical layout, Greenhouse’s remarkable extended introductory essay—dense and abstract except in her brief overview of the case studies—can be most fully appreciated after reading the case studies. Her synthetic exposition...

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