EASA2016: Anthropological legacies and human futures

The anthropology of mistrust
Location U6-23
Date and Start Time 21 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Christian Giordano (University of Fribourg) email
  • Florian Mühlfried email

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Short Abstract

This panel is dedicated to the empiricism of mistrust. Particular attention will be paid to how mistrust relates to informality and how it may lead to an undermining of legitimacy. At the same time, we also ask whether practices of mistrust possess the power to constitute.

Long Abstract

The notion of trust has become popular in the social science of the last years. The discourses centred on this notion haven't yet fully found their ways into the field of social anthropology, but some approaches of sociologists like Gambetta, Luhmann or Tilly to trust have inspired anthropologists to develop new perspectives on well-known phenomena like kinship.

After years of talking about trust, mistrust appeared on the agenda. Usually, mistrust is scrutinized as the flip side of trust. Frequent questions are: How do scandals like the NSA-affect citizens' to the state? What has to be done as to restore trust to the state and to overcome the alleged mistrust-crisis?

With this panel, we intend to take a step back and come to terms with what people actually do when they mistrust. In other words, we are interested in the empiricism of mistrust. Particular attention will be paid to how mistrust relates to informality and how it may lead to an undermining of legitimacy. At the same time, we also ask whether practices of mistrust possess the power to constitute. Can we identify communities of mistrust? May mistrust be culturally coded? If yes, what is particular about these codes? Does the sharing of mistrust create new forms of legitimacy?

We are thus advocating a concept of mistrust as a mode of relating to the world. The present panel is meant to be a first step towards a systematic approach to the anthropology of mistrust.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Mistrust at the foundations: Yapa/Kardiya relations at Yuendumu, central Australia

Author: Yasmine Musharbash (Sydney University)  email

Short Abstract

Through a three-pronged approach of ethnographic analysis, historical contextualisation and linguistic conceptualisation, I explore mistrust flaring up in contemporary interactions of Warlpiri people with non-Indigenous persons as a culturally-specific element of Warlpiri ways of being in the world.

Long Abstract

Based on fieldwork at Yuendumu, a Warlpiri settlement in central Australia, I propose that mistrust is a core component of the ways in which Yapa (as Warlpiri-speakers call themselves) relate to Kardiya (vernacular term for non-Indigenous persons). While often submerged or suppressed in contemporary Yapa-Kardiya relations, mistrust flashes into existence in telling moments. In this paper, I examine two such instances in ethnographic detail. Mistrust, I show, only becomes legible if understood as grounded in practice. I augment the ethnographic exploration with two further frames. Firstly, Warlpiri mistrust must, I put forward, be contextualized historically, through analysis of the specific tenor of Warlpiri people's first contact, frontier and early settlement experiences, and the effect they have had on ensuing generations, including how they have been folded into childhood socialisation. Secondly, I examine mistrust in relation to conceptual arrangements of what it means to be (or not to be) human in Warlpiri. As a language, Warlpiri conceptually separates Yapa and Kardiya, locating the former on a spectrum ranging from 'most human' to 'without humanity' (encompassing close relatives, kin, others, strangers, enemies and monsters, among others, but poignantly, not Kardiya). The latter are in a category of their own, outside of humanity, so to speak. Through this three-pronged approach I show how mistrust is culturally-specific in its tenor, expression, and orientation, instrumental to ways of being in the world, and much more than a simple flipside of trust.

The resistances during the Ebola epidemics as an expression of mistrust

Author: Abdoulaye Wotem Somparé (Université Kofi Annan de Guinée)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores resistances of Guinean people towards measures against the Ebola fever. I will use political anthropology to analyse a situation that reveals a strong and ancient mistrust for the State and an increasing loss of legitimation of local political and moral authorities.

Long Abstract

One of the most striking aspects of the recent epidemics of Ebola in West Africa, and in particularly in Guinea, was the abundance of attitudes of reticence and resistance of urban and rural communities, determined not to respect the recommendations of the authorities, or to impede their action even through violence. Resistances were mostly based on the idea that the desease did not exist and was the result of a conspiracy organized by the State against with the help of the International Institutions. This epidemics was the occasion to discover and analyse a widespread mistrust towards the authorities, and, more generally, the intellectual élites, perceived, according to Bayart's description (2009) , as corrupted and uninterested in the well-being of local people. After a year of fieldwork on resistances as a consultant of WHO, I will try to present the historical and socio-political reasons of the common feeling of mistrust, deception and abandon, directed both towards the State and local political and moral authorities, perceived as partners of the Government and increasingly delegitimized. I will also show how the epidemics has been the occasion, for many unheeded communities , to finally express their needs and claims. Finally, I will analyse how Ebola has disrupted the social ties and hierarchies of many rural areas, eroding gerontocracy to the advantage of new social actors, taking part of networks relating villages and towns, able to provide information, control rumours and influence public opinion.

Mediation and mistrust

Author: Stefanie Bognitz (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle/Germany)  email

Short Abstract

In the aftermath of genocide, modes of enabling pacified relationships between antagonists – mediation - is of analytical value and substance. The persistence and perseverance of scrutinizing acts - mistrust - becomes a necessity for individuals to navigate and anticipate their futures.

Long Abstract

I aim to lay out the topography of a state and a society that has chosen to stay together after acts of mass violence and genocide. Moreover, I intend to grasp some of the dynamics of coming to terms with the past through modes of pacifying relationships between antagonists - mediation - which is of analytical value and substance. Then again, I shed light on the persistence of mistrust and even more so, the perseverance of mistrust and its necessity for individuals to navigate and anticipate their futures, or formulated differently, to establish modes of feeling secure.

In Rwanda, mediation was re-introduced as institutionalized and regulated space of dispute settlement governed by law. However, what is more intriguing about this promise of mediation is its space of participatory engagements of citizens that comes in shapes of resistance, doubt and critique among other forms of making views public.

The unintended aspects of engaging citizens in mediation forums went down paths that are indicative of life worlds in the aftermath of mass atrocities and genocide. In this vein, mistrust which has become a forceful strategy in the everyday life of citizens and their struggle of survival translates in social forms of engagements that are worth being analysed.

Mistrust, silences, passivity and subversive actions are at the heart of this analysis. It is an attempt towards emphasizing actions that are heavy with meaning but often ignored because of rather being attentive towards what we perceive to see rather than what we cannot see.

Questioning victimhood: institutionalized mistrust and truth-telling practices in South Africa

Author: Melanie Brand (University of Konstanz)  email

Short Abstract

The paper analyses bureaucratically legitimized truth-telling practices (e.g. screening procedures) that in South Africa have emerged as a result of a generalized mistrust towards the authenticity and truthfulness of women claiming to be victims of domestic violence.

Long Abstract

In South Africa, the high prevalence of domestic violence - particularly affecting women - poses a major challenge for service providers offering support and counselling for victims. Following the Domestic Violence Act (1998), victims of domestic violence have the right to receive counselling and to be accommodated at a women's shelter including free counselling and skills trainings. The paper argues that the overall high levels of violence, poverty and unemployment in combination with a lack of sufficient social security structurally have produced a culture of generalized mistrust towards the truthfulness and authenticity of women claiming to be victims of domestic violence. Trying to get access to a shelter is seen as a popular coping strategy by service providers which in effect causes suspicion towards women's stories of abuse. Drawing on ethnographic material collected in urban women's shelters and institutions offering (para-) legal aid, it will be shown how this culture of mistrust generates bureaucratically legitimated truth-telling practices, e.g. a standardized screening procedure. Framed as institutional requirements and attributed to external structural causes, these truth-telling practices consequently allow counselors to accumulate detailed information about clients without openly questioning the client's truthfulness. The paper argues that suspicion - as an attitude of mistrust (see Kobelinsky 2015) - constitutes a tacit driving force of initial counselling sessions. As it will be shown, in cases in which counselors feel they have accumulated enough evidence (e.g. incoherent stories, lack of details, common narratives) tacit mistrust leaves the non-confrontational sphere of interaction and presents itself in the form of accusations.

Everyday practices of mis_trust: poor Christians and the Pakistani state

Author: Maria Beimborn (LMU Munich)  email

Short Abstract

The legitimacy of the Pakistani state is shaken not only through mistrust of the international community, but also of its own citizens. Discussing the relation of poor Christians with the State, reasons and social consequences of citizens´ mistrust are analyzed and the concept further systematized.

Long Abstract

The Pakistani state, despite its efforts to portray itself as a "state that cares" suffers from wide mistrust from its own citizens, especially from the religious minorities. The major reasons for the citizens´ distrust are corruption and favoritism. Besides a media driven image of "corrupt government", mistrust grounds in everyday experiences with the state. In the case of poor Christian citizens, additional mistrust stems from a (self-) subjectivation as "Second class citizens" - a concept of self that both, reflects in and frames their everyday experiences and practices.

Based on my fieldwork in urban Pakistan, reasons and social consequences of mis_trust towards the state are discussed: How mistrust towards the state is related to the flourishing of "informal" social security systems, patronage and brokerage in Christian urban communities; how it might be linked to mistrust in democracy and trust in military leadership?

Further the agency of minority citizens is highlighted: how they cope down mistrust and subvert the untrustworthy state when with state i.e. by building networks of trust within the state.

The paper takes everyday practices and subjectivations as starting points to further systematize mistrust: to distinguish forms and degrees and to explore the relation of mistrust and trust (here marked as "mis_trust").

If, for example, a poor women hides her religion at workplace, never approached the state for help, but carefully keeps a leaflet of a government welfare scheme and waits the luck to knock on her door - what does that tell us about mis_trust towards the state?

How not to fall in love: credibility and mistrust in online romance scams

Author: Jan Beek (Goethe University Frankfurt)  email

Short Abstract

Romance scammers defraud their victims by writing credible love letters. Their recipients react by scrutinizing such online representations more and more, creating new practices of mistrust. The paper employs cyber fraud as a lens to explore issues of mistrust in online, translocal interactions.

Long Abstract

The internet enables people to interact with others detached from their location and their identity to a larger extent than other forms of communication. Social positions that can be recognized in face-to-face interactions - like class, ethnicity, gender and age - can more easily be altered online. Cyber frauds, especially romance scams on dating websites, make apparent how much online interactions involve and require mistrust. Cybercriminals, often from West Africa, write romantic texts that are credible to their audience. They create this credibility by drawing on globally shared idioms of romantic love. However, romance scams are not one-directional persuasion strategies but interactions. The scammers' counterparts scrutinize their emails and contest implied understandings of romantic love.

Based on fieldwork in Ghana and on a close reading of two hacked scammers' email accounts, the paper first explores how scammers write credible texts. Beginning with their first email, scammers create the credibility of these texts by intertextuality. They have to recognize, select and adapt elements of a romantic practice that is markedly different from their own. By using these practices they also undermine the trust in online self-representations. Secondly, the paper develops how victims believe in, question or reject the scammers' stories in the course of the email interaction; the manipulative use of social imaginaries challenges the victims' world view. These victims, and users of dating websites in general, have begun to develop new codes of mistrust to deal with the emerging instability of online identities and symbols.

Suffering, mistrust and the acquisition of alternative medical truths

Author: Maayan Roichman (Tel Aviv University )  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores a medical community established on mistrust of the Western medical system. It examines how mistrust is articulated vis-à-vis both the suffering body and the medical institutions, and how it becomes a central aspect of the remarkable rise of alternative medical methods in Israel.

Long Abstract

Writing about the body, anthropologists have referred to pain within the Western bio-medical model as the limit of one's agency (Asad, 2003), and as evidence of the body's betrayal (Kleinman, 1988). Thus, it seems that the suffering body has become a central site of mistrust in many cultures, where the bio-medical model is prominent.

Following extensive fieldwork among complementary and alternative physicians and patients in Israel, I examine how mistrust was evoked, practiced and articulated within illness narratives, clinical encounters, professional training, debates regarding professional jurisdiction, and daily activities in the field. I suggest that the interplay between the suffering body and mistrust serves as a key aspect both in undermining the biomedical's once indisputable legitimacy, and in the formation of new healing methods, medical communities, and epistemologies of trust and mistrust towards the body and the 'medical truth'.

This ethnographic perspective provides a rather intimate look at the ways in which mistrust shapes even the most individual experiences, such as pain. It shows how "personal" practices and beliefs of mistrust soon become the basis for the disaffiliation from the mainstream medical systems and affiliation with an "alternative" one: a mistrusting medical community.

Asad, T. (2003). Formations of the secular: Christianity, Islam, modernity. Stanford University Press.

Kleinman, A. (1988). The illness narratives: Suffering, healing, and the human condition. Basic books.

Being sperto, the performance of mistrust in a Sicilian fish market

Author: Brigida Marovelli (Trinity College Dublin)  email

Short Abstract

This paper argues that mistrust is not only culturally coded, but it can be performed as a culturally appropriate way to acquire status and legitimacy in specific settings, such as a Sicilian fish market.

Long Abstract

My argument will draw on ethnographic material collected during an extended fieldwork in a Sicilian fish market, La Pescheria, Catania. The interaction between vendors and buyers was articulated though a unique

set of practices, in which customers, regarded themselves as insiders, engage in a series of competences, in which mistrust plays a fundamental role.

At the market, in fact, the terms in use to define people are sperto, which stands for furbo, or being shrewd; and babbo, which indicates the fesso, or naïve. Customers have to demonstrate their belonging to the category of sperto customers, the ones who are able to perform mistrust without being disrespectful.

This discussion is placed in the context of cheating, screwing and being smart in Catania, practices crucial to performing smartness. I also introduce codes of behaviour, related to friendship and honour, which have already featured prominently in anthropological literature about Sicily, and that are deeply related to the performance of mistrust. Both seller and buyer want to be sperto, that's the reason why mistrust is perceived as an appropriate practice. The buyer needs to be sperto too, making sure he/she gets the best buy.

Finally, I will analyse the different functions of mistrust, to highlight that in such a context the process of gaining trust can almost be described as a self-imposed justice system, in which the underlying assumption is that society is unjust and the state is not helping people, so there is the need to self-regulate through practices such as "scambio di favori" (Gambetta).

A culture of hedging: post-Soviet sectoral economic governance under conditions of low trust

Author: Barbara Lehmbruch (Uppsala University)  email

Short Abstract

The paper uses case study research on transaction patterns in Russian industry to uncover “networks of distrust”, with relationships between patrons and clients and horizontally among economic actors constructed to minimize exposure through redundancy and buffering strategies.

Long Abstract

The paper uses case study research on Russian industry to trace the changing forms of sectoral economic governance - market relationships, state industrial policy institutions, associative and network ties - after the collapse of the Soviet system.

A popular topos in the literature on economies in transition have long been variously called "clans," "networks," or "fiefdoms" seen as substituting informal interpersonal ties for the lack of institutionalized trust embedded in formal state institutions. Self-described as determinedly empirical, the "clan" paradigm is in fact shaped by its origins in East Asia research, as well as by its use as an ideal-typical opposite of Western-style hands-off market contracting in the "markets and hierarchies" literature. As such, it has acute limitations in describing post-communist societies that according to numerous survey studies have been plagued by low levels of both institutional and interpersonal trust.

This paper proposes an alternative analysis. As it argues, confronted with an environment of low trust and high uncertainty, actors have developed two main coping strategies: on the one hand vertical integration, on the other hand a hedging strategy of purposeful network redundancy. Even though trust and enforcement remain low, actors can minimize the consequences of default by maintaining multiple ties. The consequences of such organizational strategies are ambiguous. By compensating for defaults, network redundancy has cushioned the impact of economic crisis. At the same time, network redundancy has considerably raised overall transaction costs.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.