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Culture Sits in Places

by on October 11, 2011

Arturo Escobar has written this paper in response to the use of “place” in social movements and, in his words, the “defense of the construction of place”.  He also theorizes that place is not just a physical location, it is a multi-layered system that plays an important role in social structures, culture and a human’s own self.  Escobar opens the paper by explaining that the role of place can be different depending on your perspective, whether it is the Political Ecology or Anthropology approach.

Through several recent conflicts, the role of being “placeless” is becoming more relevant with all the displacement of people, which plays into the theme of wanting to “get back into place”.  These sorts of recent events, Escobar goes on to say, “deterritorialization, displacement, diaspora, migration, traveling, border-crosses, nomadology, have made us aware of the fact that the principal dynamics of culture and economy have been significantly altered by unprecedented global processes.” (141)  I found this statement really interesting because I have not thought that the displacements going on in our world, mixed with modern political processes, could create a group of people or “place” that operates completely different from what we would expect in 2011.  Escobar goes on to say that people seem to create boundaries, either purposively or subconsciously, around their place.  These boundaries are usually porous, but the place and boundaries must have the “locality” even if the people are being relocated.  Escobar continues on to talk about the use of ethnographies to illustrate a people’s resistance, either to global or local factors, and that he thinks the best ones are the few who combine models and perspectives of economy and environment.  The author goes on to analyze the social movements of Black communities of the Pacific Rainforest region of Columbia (139) and shows how to analyze a place from the microbiological level to the transnational level. This approach to this specific community goes from the very small scope all the way to the huge global scope, in order to show the huge amounts of factors and paradigms that could stem from one particular area.


This reading made me think about the field papers that everyone in this class is doing and I wanted to ask: What kind of memories, boundaries, identities, or political/social problems has everyone encountered in their field or “place”?

  1. While reading this article, and especially Will’s post about it, I was trying to think of other examples of boundaries and the best one I could come up with is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The issue of boundaries, both political and physical, has been an issue that started one of the most violent conflicts in the modern day world. When the state of Israel was founded, millions of Palestinians were displaced. Now nearly six million Palestinian refugees are spread out through the Middle East. I wrote a paper on the topic last semester for an International Affairs course, and this was just an interesting connection I made between the topics of politics and the environment.

    • Benjamin N. permalink

      It’s interesting to think about the fact that such a major conflict could start over something that is ultimately arbitrary. Territories, borders, boundaries, the “lines on the map,” are defined through human culture – there’s no true geographical separation between one place and another (save for mountains, bodies of water, etc.). Despite this, conflict arises over to whom each part of the world belongs. That conflict can exist over something that only exists in theory is astounding.

  2. I did not read this particular article but I did read the Valerie Alia piece about indigenous people and their role in the media. The Escobar article that was summarized in this post regarding the conflict with boundaries reminded me about the boundary and governmental issues discussed in the Alia article. Alia discussed how boundaries have become an issue with some indigenous people living in certain areas and being attempted to be taken over by governmental organizations and regulations. Boundaries have been an issue in this sense as a result of a debate over who’s-who’s. Alia also highlighted the explosion of media for indigenous people, or the “New Media Nation” and that governmental agencies took control and removed many indigenous people’s only source of media, the radio, forcing them to become or labeled as “outlaws”.

  3. This article coincides with the article called “Weaving a Communication Quilt…” by Murillo. Many indigenous located in an area called Cauca in Colombia have been outcaste and accused of going against government policies. There have been many back and forth efforts trying to hush this community from being heard. Since 2000, this community has used local independent radio to voice their concerns, local interest, and traditions. Many conflicts arose when NAFTA tried to implement policies in the area. Yet, the indigenous have been able to fight back with the use of radio. This community has also found a way to keep listeners and active participants by incorporating mass media information such as music. It seems their point is not to totally keep them isolated, but at the local level, have their traditions and beliefs heard for the protection of their people. Both of these articles are example of Forsyth’s article regarding political ecology.

  4. The reading that I did, Valerie Alia’s, talked a lot about indigenous people using technology to try to become boundary-less. Their struggles in creating that, for instance in pirating radio waves, shows that there is a constant struggle with boundaries. I also think it ironic that they are trying to expand boundaries in some aspects in order to strengthen theirs in other aspects. We have all encountered boundaries before in our lives, that why we have our own particular social groups that we feel safe within. It seems the human species needs to create them as a security blanket. It’s something that separates “us” from “them”.

  5. I agree with Ben, I think it is very interesting that “lines on a map” though nonexistent, can fuel so much conflict. For example the idea off capitalism is readily rejected by many countries because it is thought that globalization and the diffusion of capitalism will result in a “violation” and an “eventual death” of a non-capitalist form of economy. However many non-capitalist countries, namely China, have hybrid-economies in which forms of capitalist and non-capitalist forms of economy merge together to form a hybrid. Escobar argues that in this way, people can be more forgiving in their critique in capitalism and the culture that it produces.

  6. shanewyenn permalink

    I’m agree with Ben and Kaity. The fact that so much conflict arises over such arbitrary lines on a map is absolutely astounding, however, lets not forget that we are not the only species to do this. Many animals are extremely territorial and will fight to the death to protect a territory that they believe is rightfully there’s. It could be to protect precious resources, a nice sleeping tree, or even to establish a hierarchy, but regardless of the reason, I think there is something to be said about life on this planet and its overarching need to protect specific areas of land. I’m taking Primate Behavior this semester and we watch a lot of BBC and National Geographic videos that show different primate behaviors such as tool use and territory battles and if you were to replace say, a baboon with a human, it would not really look that different.

  7. shanewyenn permalink

    Whoops! I really need to proofread my comments. Pretend it says “I agree” instead of “I’m agree.”

  8. amygraceaustin permalink

    Peoples comments in light of this article are really interesting and I would like to point out how much Escobar’s discussion of place relates to the nature/culture dialogue that we’ve been having in class. A “place” is a piece of the natural world which is imposed by cultural meanings. Escobar writes a lot about social movements in Latin America and I remember reading an article of his in Spanish while I was in Bolivia. His discussion of “place” in the context of social movements holds huge importance in a post-colonial context. I have studied how some indigenous groups are now coming together to reclaim their land and re-identify and re-articulate what that space means. This is part of what Escobar is refering to when he discusses “subaltern strategies of localization”. He means that groups historically dominated by hegemonic forces are now finding spaces to articulate their own desires and ways of living in a landscape. I think the work Escobar has done, particularly this article, is essential to anyone studying social movements or political organization in Latin America.

  9. I did not read this article originally but I, like Amy, am intrigued by the comments I have read above. I was especially interested in Ben’s comment about “lines on a map.” It seems to strange to me that borders, which really are pretty arbitrary lines dividing the landscape, signify such cultural differences. People almost HAVE to be separated in order to get along due to differences in religion and interests. Why do we even need borders? I think Morgan interpreted correctly that borders are almost like a curtain that can distinguish the “us” from the “them” and we seem to think that this is helpful.

  10. my field place happens to be our neighborhood park, which is literally down the street from our house. after visiting this park many times i definitely noticed that it provoked many childhood memories for me. thankfully it brings me back to a place that i have not thought of in years. i had a very happy childhood for the most-part, and as i push my little ones on the swings i think of my father doing the same many years ago. not only can a place make you think of specific memories, but i’ve also come to find out that it evokes a certain emotional basis. it becomes nostalgic and makes you feel (in this case) appreciative and acknowledge the pure simplicity and joy of being a child. at this place i let all my stressed dissipate, and kind of let my self just enjoy life at that moment. in a sense this field spot has opened up an opportunity for me to appreciate my past, and realize how important it is to sit back and enjoy life…

  11. Escobar’s article definitely gave me a different perspective on the subject of perspective and place. I never thought of it in those terms, in the sense that place could be a multi-layered system that affects culture. I mean, I knew that culture is affected by the environment with which it thrives, but I didn’t really think of it as being something other than physical. It’s so interesting, when thinking of this concept, how one immediately realizes the validity behind the idea of place being multi-layered, because it makes perfect sense; when we identify with a place, it’s more than just a home you live in or the land you’re on, it’s all of it wrapped together. I think this understanding is important in both political ecology and anthropology, and I agree that different approaches are going to be made depending on which side one stands on; role of place becomes extremely important. In thinking of ‘place’ one must acknowlege that it is important, the angle by which one approaches a subject, and that this multi-layered concept is extremely important to finding out what ‘place’ really means.

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