Posted in Readings

Methodology Notes: Fieldwork and Reality Construction


This month I am following a Master course, “Fieldwork in Conflict and Post-Conflict Setting” with Gemma van der Haar and Peter Tamas. It is very good and gives me a lot of imagination to handle the practice and methodological thinking of doing fieldwork. I would recommend to do this course especially if you already had a fieldwork in mind. In each session, we discuss the delicate and intricate dilemmas based on experiences of other researchers, which is why it open my mind in a good direction. This is perhaps the only Master class (with big credits) that I will be taking in the course of my PhD and I am happy that it is very interactive, not a one way lecture loaded with cognitive material, but it deals with our emotions etc. The point is to put the study materials into a dialogue with our own thinking and research.

Today we study about what are we able to research? We encountered the “social construction of reality” line of thought that shows us how it is perhaps not enough to study hard facts. My own interpretation of today’s class is we are able to study three “layers” of research object: the first is the action or practice, the second is what people say about those action (what they think is knowledge or knowledge claim), and the third (the constructivist approach) is the “structures that enables some societal knowledge to be possible”, it means doing a historical study or an “archaeology” of the knowledge (claim). The implication of our discussion is the question of whether or not is it important that the content of the knowledge claims is true in the sense that it objectively tells the factual reality? Or does it matter more to see what are the frames within which such claims are possible? Does it matter so much that what people say has to be the real truth, or does it matter more to see how their claim, regardless of its “objective accuracy”, implicates their action?

I am a very beginner on this, it seems like the course is persuading me to study the third layer and not taking the first layer for granted. But I am not sure if I would be able to study the third layer, it seems very difficult. So for now, for my own research I would still stick with the first layer, at least initially, you can call me a positivist, it is okay for me. I would still need to have the concrete, material, practices and action, that is something I can research. Then only I will think about the next layers. And I think also each layers are interactive and constitutive of each other. As we discussed in class, it is a process (between the three layers), one does not exclude the other. Constructivist is studying the process of how knowledge comes into being, including within ourselves. We also problematizes how “representation” of realities are often seen as different and separated from “the reality” itself. But it is not separated, it has a dynamic relation. People act based on the representation of realities. “Representation is what informs action, not the brute reality but what they think is real,” said my lecturer.

The second thing that I will be following this week is a workshop on how to write an abstract. It is going to be more informal and intimate, I guess. I will let you know how it goes. Another thing that I am doing this month until December is a reading group on Marx’s Kapital. I am happy to do it together with friends and also a lecturer, Kees Jansen. It is a biweekly reading group and this week we are reading the third chapter about money. I am not doing this because it is trendy or cool to read Marx, but because the labour theory of value is very core in my theoretical framework. But I am also simultaneously struggling to learn the methods and how to do the research in practice. How to study labour relationship? Should I train some households to keep a diary of activities like what Michael Dove did in his research? Well, I am still in the search of different options.

… continually facing a problem which is very familiar to anthropologists: how to express a different system with a vocabulary which is inevitably moulded to the institutions of the society in which it is normally used. (Bloch, 1983: 34)

Current status: It’s our third day in the Netherlands and I kind of feel like I’ve started finding my rhythm. What a great feeling and what a beautiful place to be! I love every aspect of doing PhD in rural area with my little family ūüėÄ

Current status:¬†When you’re almost done with your paper (only a couple of paragraphs left, perhaps another two or three hundred words and today’s the deadline) but you feel like you need to reread one or two literatures to write those last paragraphs and you decided to get a haircut instead.

2.5/100 days of accomplishment. Featured photo source: fiercelittlestudyblr

Posted in Readings

Reading Notes: The Origin of Capitalism

Today at 2 a.m. I’ve finished reading “The Origin of Capitalism” by Ellen Meiksins Wood. It’s a must read if you really want to understand capitalism. A quick note:

Trade is not inherently capitalist. Profit is not inherently capitalist. Accumulation is not inherently capitalist (that’s why Marx refer to Smith’s terminology as “the so-called primitive accumulation”). Imperialism is not inherently capitalist. As this book clearly shows in history, there existed pre-capitalist imperialism, or perhaps we may also say non-capitalist imperialism. And bourgeois is not the same with capitalist, please read the history, it is absolutely different. Bourgeoises were office holder in France while capitalist refers to the tenant in English countryside. Even capital is not inherently capitalist, it depends on the term in which you relate to that capital. Because, capitalism is essentially¬†social relationship. So what we need to think about is the social structure, the way society operates, its hierarchies and the implications.

It is important to understand this clearly, so at least we can allow the imagination of “reversing” capitalism without limiting ourself by thinking that such effort is impossible. It is possible to be non-capitalist but still do trade, for example, etc.

Capitalism is definitive when market has become an imperative, this is the keyword. Compulsion not opportunity. It happens when in order to access my means of self-reproduction (and survival), I depend on the market and have to make myself as effective and productive as possible under the principle of market competition. Let’s give an example. Because in real life I don’t have property, let’s say I am a labour. Capitalism means, as a labour, to utilize my labour and be able to reproduce my own subsistence, I am in a situation which, for example, there are one employee and two labour including me, and capitalism means I have to (to give an extreme example) pay some money to the employee to give the job to me. The amount of money that I have to pay depend on market mechanism, meaning it depends on how much I am able to pay and how much my competitor is able to pay. The highest bidder wins. To win the bid and have more dear sum of money to pay in order to get the job, both of us (me and my competitor, both labours) have to push ourselves to be as effective and productive as possible with the labour that we have.

Such illustration was what happened in the English countryside in sixteenth century. There was a unified monarchy and there were “landlords” that, unlike in other countries, depend on rents instead of tax. They hired surveyor to calculate the market price of lease, so lease price was not decided based on custom nor a fixed rate. And then there were capitalist tenant that have to bid and compete in order to get a lease of land, this is what a “farmer” means, so farmer is not someone who get their hands dirty to cultivate the land, they were people who employ others to work the land. The workers were, I read somewhere in this book, sometimes “seasonal” worker who were very common at that time. And there were also “peasants” who have access to common land or perhaps owned land and worked on it themselves for their subsistence, but I assumed that beside working on their own land, they were also permanently or occasionally worked for the capitalist-tenant-farmer. Capitalism happens because as the tenants depended on market (market as imperative) to get lease, they had to submit themselves to the principle of competition, productivity and effectiveness. They squeeze the farm workers (so labour in capitalism is not identical with factory workers in the city) “surplus” until the land concentration that was already extraordinarily very high became even more highly concentrated. At the end, it brought dispossession of a lot of rural people who had common use rights (for example), and these people went to inhabit London.

If only I’ve read this book earlier, I would have a different perceptions when I visited Somerset in 2011 for study trip. That was the closest encounter I’ve ever had with British countryside. As an Indonesian, it is very difficult for me to imagine British society in the sixteenth century. I mean, how did such social structure come about? I imagine at first nobody own the land, so why suddenly someone could become an aristocrat, someone else a landlord without extra-economic power but have to depend on the income from rent, someone become a tenant (who were these?), someone was a peasant.¬†I think the most difficult one to imagine is the tenant. Were they used to be a peasant and had to lease larger land? Were the peasants sometimes also a tenant and other times also a worker? Thank goodness I have a dear friend who is a very intelligent native British who are coming over to my place on the 30th of January who might offer some clear explanation.

Otherwise Ellen Meiksins Wood herself had made a book, “Liberty and Property: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Renaissance to Enlightenment.” Perhaps I have to read that too, only the chapter that talks about English countryside in sixteenth history. Or, for a shorter and more direct, quick answer for my confusion, maybe this article by her will also helps:¬†(2009). ‚ÄėPeasants and the Market Imperative: The Origins of Capitalism,‚Äė in A. Haroon Akram- Lodhi and Crist√≥bal Kay (eds), Peasants and Globalization: Political Economy, rural transformation and the Agrarian Question, Routledge: London and New York, pp. 37-56.

It is important for me to understand capitalism because things that are inherent of capitalism is its “crisis cycle” and “internal contradiction”. In my research, the conservation that we’re talking about is supposed to be “responding” to such crisis (financial crisis, and environmental crisis that capitalism evokes). So despite my wild guesses and having new questions on the British society, I had an absolutely great time absorbing “The Origins of Capitalism”. The new knowledge that I acquire and the new self-realization of what I don’t understand is important for me and illuminating for my research journey. I can’t wait to study more.

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Posted in Readings

RIP Ellen Meiksins Wood

Ellen Meiksins Wood is my hero in the academic world. I am saddened by her passing last week, not only because I look up to her and want to be like her (though this is a far-fetched dream), but also because I wanted to meet her one day … and shamelessly ask for her autographs, maybe.

The first time I’ve come to know her work was when I studied at ISS (International Institute of Social Studies) in 2010. It was one of our earliest and basic course, “Development Histories, Theories, and Practices”. As usual, before class, students have to read some stuffs to answer the question of that particular session. Her article, “The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism” was to be read to answer the question of why capitalism first emerged in English and not elsewhere. It was a very intriguing question, typical ISS, and it’s an important question as it made us learn the distinctive features of capitalism that is often misunderstood (what makes it different from mercantilism, for example).

Now that she’s gone, I am preparing a tribute for her. I’ve finished reading two of her essays and I’ve been reading the longer version of her article that I mentioned above. It’s a book titled “The Origin of Capitalism: a longer view”. Today, I’ve finished 4 out of 10 chapters. Because I am already on her side, for me, the earlier part of this book is very lengthy and meticulous in explaining the flaws of opposing arguments that tried to teleologically explain the origins of capitalism by assuming that capitalism is “already there” and comes about by freeing its hindrance. She called it “the commercialization model”.

After reading that much of this book, I realized that it was not easy being her because a lot of (academia, highly educated! even Marxist!) people misunderstood capitalism, meanwhile she’s trying to be rigorous, precise, and accurate in understanding capitalism based on historical materialism approach. She got a lot of attacks on her rigidness, but her rigidness is exactly what makes me fall in love because it gives me the answer that makes sense and convincing, not just tiptoeing around the question and giving compromised sidetracks that abandons the real question.

I realized that her argument is standing strong to hold on to, as compared to the rests. She’s like a lone voice in her rigidness and she really slays the bullshits of other teleological arguments. If you read her works you know that she’s one of the most brilliant political theorist in our era. Another plus point is she has a strong integrity, in the sense that she didn’t feel obliged to be influenced by other arguments when it’s not consistent, although such arguments might be popular or having strong political supporters. But she’s not simply dismissing such arguments, she took the problem of really understanding what’s “missing”. For her, the most important thing is to deal with the core and she handle it radically (I mean to the root of the problem) without compromise.

I can imagine that she’s a person who never stop asking questions, at least in her mind. I can also imagine that she’s really studying everything to the core, at least starting with the right historical account.

From her book and articles, I got some idea and additional questions for my PhD research. Of course I will have to understand the history of what I am studying. I am really looking forward to be studying as hard as her!

Posted in Readings

No one belongs here more than you

Everywhere I go, I’m more of a novice or an outsider than the other people in the field.” Miranda July

I have a guess: people write fiction when they have repressed feelings. I am not like that. Not at all. I’m confrontational. I don’t have the tiniest bit of passive aggressiveness, unlike most fellows I know. Which is why I actually feel quite safe in the Netherlands, given the Dutch being notorious for having a quirk of absolute bluntness. It helps me, in a way. Everything is out in the open. I don’t need to risk a wild guess gone awry. I don’t need to secretly wish for cue cards in social relationship.

This revelation comes to me after reading Miranda July’s short stories, “No one belongs here more than you”. It’s as if a lightbulb popped in my head this morning, “this is why I don’t write fiction.” As you might have read in my previous post, my writing trajectory has barely touched upon the made-up world and I am totally blas√© about it.

It is not to say that I don’t appreciate fiction. I do, very much. I could claim to be a loyal fiction reader throughout my life. And I have no intention to stop. One of the reason is perhaps the effect of reading fiction. It directly boosts my comprehension of how to be more empathetic. I love Adichie and Zadie Smith, for example, because they are writers who talk about social issues too obvious to ignore but definitely, most obviously, had been mostly ignored by the rest of writers.

Not to imply that I don’t like Miranda July. I like the way she writes. It has a sense of free-style and cool vibe that is barely out of my reach. The only thing is, I am not one hundred percent sure of being empathetic to her – in my humble opinion – privileged characters. One of the blurb said her characters are exactly the strong point of her prose, the uniqueness, the voice that makes this collection stood out. It is about ordinary people living ordinary life, deep down having so many complication and repressed feelings. In a way, the author’s an artist as she could capture it all underneath and make it worth surfacing. Yet, I don’t know why is everyone so dysfunctional? What’s all the fuss? I don’t see them having problem other than internal.

Still, I enjoy reading her crafted words the way Lorde learn from her storytelling how to put words into songs. If you see tumblr feeds on this book and the author, it is full of quotes which represents exactly how July writes: with lots of implied attitude of quotables that could as well be gone. A lot of it are genius and on point. Perhaps it is the essence of her stories, not heavy on the plot or story line but rich of seemingly uncorrelated wildness and confrontation in each character’s mind.

If you’re like me, you might be suddenly confronted with some lines out of nowhere, in the middle of the story, that makes you mirror into yourself: do people always have to beat themselves up like that? Don’t we have enough of these “I don’t have any financial problems per se but I am still unhappy” kind of plot? It unleashes such unbelievable whirlwind of self-analyzing mode: is it wrong for me to be one-dimensional and not having any hint of tragedy in what I feel or experience? Does feeling tragic, or portraying yourself as tragic, makes you more likeable? What’s the point? For me, one can only be admirably, enviably tragic when they are not actually tragic. If they’re actually tragic, they’re just that: tragic.

Lorde’s interview at rookie magz was the reason I grabbed this book at the library, and I am happy to know that there are different character out there and we are living in different worlds. It basically pointed out that a lot of times people are unsure and having a lot of uncertainties, no matter how strong they tried to plan things out in advance.


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