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Book Review: Transnational Black Feminism and Qualitative Research: Black Women, Racialization and Migration by Tanja J. Burkhard

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 27/05/2022 - 9:10pm in


book review

In Transnational Black Feminism and Qualitative Research: Black Women, Racialization and MigrationTanja J. Burkhard explores Transnational Black Feminism as a qualitative research framework that centres the narratives of Black women. This book is a valuable resource for those committed to conducting more equitable research that disrupts extractive modes of knowledge production, writes Lydia Ayame Hiraide, and will particularly enhance the understanding of Black women researchers seeking to conduct rigorous but sensitive qualitative research amongst and within our own communities. 

Transnational Black Feminism and Qualitative Research: Black Women, Racialization and Migration. Tanja J. Burkhard. Routledge. 2022.

Book cover of Transnational Black Feminism and Qualitative ResearchIn Transnational Black Feminism and Qualitative Research, Tanja J. Burkhard centres the narratives of Black women as told by themselves, whilst proposing Transnational Black Feminism (TBF) as a qualitative framework to tell and analyse these stories. Over the course of 75 pages, this short text makes a theoretical, empirical and methodological contribution to the study of race, gender, migration/borders and intersectionality in the social sciences. It is written in a clear and engaging style, providing an excellent overview of and primer to Transnational Black Feminist qualitative inquiry. The framework is proposed as a way of undertaking research with people that we know and love, without compromising the quality of the research or the important relationships that sustain us.

The first two chapters of the book concentrate on the key methodological and theoretical challenges and opportunities that arise from conducting research using a TBF framework. At the heart of this is Burkhard’s proposal of TBF as a research framework which supports researchers to undertake research within their own communities whilst attending to the local, national and global contexts which frame and shape the lives of Black women across time and space.

Fundamentally, TBF is a method of analysis and storytelling which contextualises ‘Black women’s ways of knowing by placing them front and center in the qualitative research process’ (3), whilst examining the structural, historical, spatial and affective forces that shape Black women’s complex, changing lives. In her use of the framework, Burkhard encourages us to think both through and beyond borders of nation states, sewing threads amongst the continents of Africa, the Americas and Europe in order to contextualise and analyse the lives of transnational Black women living in the US.

Three Black women smiling and talking

Image Credit: Photo by Christina @

Crucially, the framework emphasises how multiple spaces simultaneously configure what we make of ourselves and of others. Using her empirical data, for example, Burkhard shows how ideas about what Blackness is are culturally, spatially and temporally contingent. TBF thus pushes back on the idea that the US (or any one state) should constitute the primary or only location of relevance for Black feminism – or that Black feminism and Black/African women located in the US are not always shaping and being shaped by other parts of the world. The framework therefore disrupts methodological preoccupations with the nation state as the primary unit of analysis. Instead, TBF proposes a transnational analytic which works to consider the relationships between different spaces and places in shaping the diverse experiences of Black women.

After setting out TBF as a qualitative framework, the latter two chapters of the book present and analyse the empirical data collected for this research. This consists of a series of interviews conducted with seven Black women with whom the author holds personal relationships of varying degrees of intimacy, as well as reflexive insights from the author herself.

At the core of the book’s empirical discussion is a sensitive and respectful commitment to telling the stories of these women. Burkhard weaves the words of her research participants into the fabric of her astute political analysis, whilst bringing attention to the affective complexities of conducting qualitative research. After all, as she emphasises, the ‘data’ she collects are the personal stories of real individual people. And indeed, there are parts of their stories which can often be difficult, traumatic and emotional to tell and to listen to. From this view, qualitative inquiry is revealed to be a complex affective affair which requires sensitivity to how ethics, power and reciprocity frame how the research is conducted.

The final chapter, which specifically addresses questions around reflexivity and reciprocity, is perhaps one of the most valuable parts of the book for those currently conducting or looking to embark upon directing their own qualitative research, especially with racialised communities. Burkhard insists on the ‘need to think critically about engaging in solidarity, coalition-building, and […] to think about what exploitation and reciprocity may mean in their particular contexts’ (60). This means moving away from extractive modes of research where the research encounter begins and ends with the interview.

Burkhard describes how her own reciprocal ethic in the research conducted for this book manifested in activities such as English tutoring, providing emotional support and supporting with claims for asylum. But she notes the danger of researchers risking their own health and wellbeing in undertaking this labour under the spirit of reciprocity. Certainly, this speaks to wider concerns about much of the extra unpaid labour that women disproportionately undertake both within academia and elsewhere already. This does not detract from the value of this book, however. So, as a reader and qualitative researcher, I was left curious about some of the strategies that Burkhard put in place to navigate this aspect of her research. How exactly does a researcher set up these boundaries? Who decides what they are and based on what criteria? Which resources proved important in supporting a healthy dynamic of reciprocity? These are ongoing questions for many researchers working on projects founded on an ethics of reciprocity.

Not only is it important to consider how qualitative research is conducted, but also how we tell the stories entrusted to us as researchers. Burkhard’s sensitivity to Black feminist storytelling can be seen in her attention to what she refers to as the poetics of Black women’s lives. She literally creates poetry out of the words from the interviews which she conducted. Drawing on the interview content, she stitches together the words of her multiple participants in beautiful poems which exercise an emotional aspect whilst shedding light on the harsh politics which frame transnational Black women’s lives in the US.

Integrating poems into the text of the book works very well as the poems add texture and colour to the stories that sit at the heart of Burkhard’s political analysis. The poems speak vividly to the fundamental things that move us and make us. But they do this without encroaching on or detracting from the incisive analysis of how research participants responded to the politics of race, gender, class, nationality and so on. Constructing poetry from interview content is a curious and invigorating way to engage with qualitative data. It would have been interesting to know more about how the creative process of constructing these poems worked, setting it up further as a potential tool for other researchers to draw on.

In this book, Burkhard makes a compelling argument for adopting TBF as a method of qualitative inquiry, showing how TBF accounts for the importance of context, intersectionality, self-reflexivity and researcher-participant power dynamics. Crucially, Burkhard does not shy away from bringing her full researcher self to the text and research. Reflecting on her own personal narrative and experiences as a Black German woman and former international student, she shows how the differences and similarities which she shared with her research participants – who were also Black women but of different backgrounds – coloured the types of conversations they had in their interviews. Bringing these aspects of personal narrative into the discussion illustrates the value of engaging in a strong practice of reflexivity from both theoretical and methodological perspectives.

The book’s keen attention to the particular ways in which researchers’ own positionalities shape and frame qualitative inquiry adds to feminist insistences that knowledges are ‘situated’ – that is, the knowledge that we produce is always situated within and therefore shaped by the specific geospatial, temporal and cultural context of the researcher as much as the research participants. Given TBF’s attention to the relationships between space, power and the production of knowledge, this concise book is an especially valuable resource for researchers committed to conducting more equitable research that disrupts academic traditions of exploitative and extractive knowledge production. For Black women researchers in particular, this text enhances our understandings of how to conduct rigorous but sensitive qualitative research amongst and within our own communities.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Banner Image Credit: Photo by Christina @


Book Review: Complaint! by Sara Ahmed

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 26/05/2022 - 10:03pm in

In Complaint!Sara Ahmed follows the institutional life of complaints within the university, exploring how they begin, how they are processed and how they are ultimately stopped, thereby reproducing systems of whiteness, violence and silencing. Proposing complaint as a feminist pedagogy and a form of collective and social action, Ahmed’s work should provoke change to a resistant institution and culture, writes Anna Nguyen

Complaint! Sara Ahmed. Duke University Press. 2021.

Book cover of Complaint!A few years ago, I leave my first position at a university. There, I dealt with external committees, whose mission statements mirror legal jargon, yet all conduct ‘informal’ procedural methods. I have grown tired of hearing the words ‘neutral’ and ‘good faith’. After I compile all the emails that I consider to be harmful and to exhibit asymmetries of power, these external members suggest that they can’t actually see any harm or toxicity. While I contemplated my next steps, a professor from a different university emailed me and warned that I should expect that professors will always take the side of professors. If I wanted to stay in the department, he suggested, I would have to find a way to ‘submit’ in the least humiliating way for myself. I didn’t take his advice, but I have never forgotten those foreboding words, especially now that I have heard from other professors that I should keep my head down and do my work. Never am I explicitly told that my wellbeing and status are tied to professorial power.

In On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, Sara Ahmed had already begun an institutional ethnography on the language of diversity and how diversity and its initiatives are institutionalised performative acts. Rereading the book alongside Ahmed’s most recent monograph, Complaint!, and relating my own experiences above, the recurring issues she raises point to the radical need for deep structural change in universities. On the first page of her acknowledgements, Ahmed writes that she completed Complaint! during the COVID-19 pandemic amidst ongoing global cruelties and violence. She, like many others, has written that we can organise our worlds in other ways, that we can dismantle existing structures and build better alternative futures, noting wryly that a global pandemic shouldn’t have been the reason for this lesson to be learned (xi). But who is not learning these lessons? Or who has heard these complaints but has not tried to collectively help shape better futures?

Ahmed begins Complaint! by emphasising how ‘complaints are not heard or how we are not heard when we are heard as complaining’ (3). Those who follow Ahmed’s work will be well aware that she traces the genealogy of words – verbs, nouns, as subjects or as objects – and how their meanings may change depending on their uses. Complaining as a speech act may have negative connotations, but Ahmed draws our attention to complaint as a form of feminist pedagogy.

Ahmed does this by offering a ‘feminist ear’, a method she’s introduced in Living a Feminist Life (3): ‘to acquire a feminist ear is to become attuned to the sharpness of such words, how they point, to whom they point. To be heard as complaining is often attuned to sound, to how we sound, how we are heard as sounding, to how words sound, to how we sound, how we are heard as sounding, to how words sound, stories too’ (17). More specifically, Ahmed is observing complaints as testimony (13) and as ‘formal allegation’ (4) in the space of the university that, as I note in my own fragments and experiences, offers informal procedures that mimic legal language and formalities to avoid any real accountability.

Door with sign reading 'This Door Blocked'

Image Credit: Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

For this project, which she had already begun before resigning from her university post in 2016,  Ahmed’s institutional ethnography is based on interviews with 40 students, academics, researchers and administrators who were involved in a formal complaint process, including those who withdrew (10), eighteen written statements as well as conversations held in person, by email or by phone (11).

The first three sections of Complaint! follow the institutional life of a formal complaint: how they begin, how they are processed and how they are ultimately stopped. In Part One, ‘Institutional Mechanics’, Ahmed analyses the language, policies and procedures as well as other ‘nonperformatives’ (see also Judith Butler, 1993): institutional speech acts that do not bring into effect what they name (30, 80), such as nodding (80). Complaints follow a particular procedural pathway, and they are filed and placed in a record, a record that is not only indicative of what happens to a person but also what happens in institutions (38) – or what can be considered the ‘phenomenology of the institution’ (41). The mechanics of the institution not only tell us how institutions work by going through long procedural processes, but also how they reproduce these systems of whiteness, violence and silencing (99-100).

The complaints compiled in the book range from institutional violence (the focus of Part Three, ‘If These Doors Could Talk?’), racism and sexism, bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment, ableism, precarity, the aftermath of challenging whiteness and the power structures of the university (‘the canon’ is a topic that obviously comes up), the paradox of committees on diversity and equality, silence and bribery (see especially pages 99-100) and lack of support, as evidenced by unkind reference letters for jobs post-graduate life.

A year later. I leave another university and department. I knew the procedures better than my then supervisor, who has never had a PhD student and never taught a class, yet he determines my work is not scientific and I write like a ‘political leader’. I disagree. He sends an email that states I would have a hard time if I continued writing as I do. And so I email him to end the supervisory relationship. His last words were that this was for the best and that I had to take advice from professors. More professorial wisdom. I still disagree with these sentiments. A dean whom I’ve never met asks to meet with me and discuss what happened via email. I never respond.

In the first chapter of the first section, Ahmed notes that some words already carry a complaint; ‘all you have to do is use a word like race and you will be heard as complaining’ (65). Words like ‘inappropriate’ and ‘unreasonable’ (17) I have also heard, by professors interpreting my own complaints. In the next section, ‘The Immanence of Complaint’, we see how ‘institutional blinds’ are lifted when complaints make violence visible; yet, acts of violence are also justified by what Ahmed calls ‘theoretical justifications’ (133). These theoretical considerations are themselves violent (134; read, too, an example of a Title IX case at Harvard University, where theoretical assumptions are harmful). Or, when discourse is contested, professors will hurl ‘you can’t handle criticism’ (126), which I also hear quite often, a phrase that requires a lot of elaboration in situations involving power.

In addition to the analysis of complaint as a method, Ahmed illuminates how institutions like the university are designed for precisely the people who can and continue to flourish while miming theoretical righteousness and perpetuating violent norms. Many of us know professors who fit this categorisation, those who perform critical analysis but insist on sovereign lecterns or using the traditional classroom space to ‘objectively’ teach. Ahmed astutely writes: ‘We learn not only from who is supported but from how they are supported, how ideals (such as academic freedom or criticality) can be reused to justify ways of speaking or acting that are not only the object of a complaint but what most universities say they are committed to opposing’ (135).

But it’s the third section of the book that is most troubling, especially for those like myself who feel that they have no other option but to leave while departments and the university continue with their everyday approach to research as business. A scholar’s or a student’s departure does not end institutional violence. As many of Ahmed’s participants shared, once they lodge complaints against their supervisors, there can be instant ‘institutional death’ (223).

Ongoing. I have been discussing a position with another department. I disagree with the role of the proposed supervisory arrangement, in which my would-be supervisor suggests I should satisfy her expectations for a dissertation. My writing should be legible to her. I make it clear that I welcome feedback with which I can engage and even reject, but I suggest that a dissertation is a project that I shape that does not belong to her expectations. I unflinchingly say the word ‘whiteness’ to discuss her arbitrary expectations and she then asks me to explain how I perceive the situation as racist or about whiteness. Before the conversation ends, I have already decided, once again, to leave.

It is difficult not to compare one’s own experiences whilst reading Complaint!, especially when I and others have seen many complaints go through institutional processes that led to nowhere or are ‘buried’, as one participant shared (38). Ahmed likens complaints to biographies that tell a particular life story, reminding us that data is as experiential as it is theoretical (18): ‘The term complaint biography helps us to think of the life of a complaint in relation to the life of a person or a group of people […] To think of a complaint biography is to recognize that a complaint, in being lodged somewhere, starts somewhere else. A complaint might be the start of something – so much happens after a complaint is lodged, because it has been lodged – but it is never the starting point’ (20).

Person surrounded by paper scattered on the floor

 Photo by Kelli McClintock on Unsplash

This observation makes space for the penultimate chapter of the concluding section. In Chapter Seven, other contributors wrote ‘Collective Conclusions’, detailing their first collaboration on a report on their department which documented the sexualisation and abuses of powers they witnessed or experienced during their studies (264). The role of lived experiences moves from individual problems to ones that confront structures. Complaint, then, becomes a form of social and collective action.

Ahmed’s last sentence is a gesture to a similarly framed sentiment about citations: that they are ‘how we acknowledge our debt to those who came before; those who helped us find our way when the way was obscured because we deviated from the paths we were told to follow’ (2017, 15-16). Complaint is complementary to citation, in that ‘a complaint can open the door to those who came before’ (310). Both concepts recognise the need for collectivity.

Some months have passed since Harvard’s letter scandal, one that captivated our attention because of recurring predatorial behaviours, professorial networks that sustain power and the role of ‘star scholars’. On Twitter, I saw scholars proclaiming the need to purge letter signatories from their citational practices, a statement that I find gestures to an individual response and practice rather than a structural one. And, of course, Ahmed’s work was in constant circulation, which I find both encouraging as much as it raises suspicion. This observation is not an indictment of Ahmed’s incredible work – I don’t think she needs to solve the problems on which she writes and reflects so thoughtfully. She, after all, has left the physical spaces of academia and continues to write without institutional support. But I question the role of citations and their strategically performative and nonperformative use by those who have power in universities.

Solidarity and actual institutional change must move beyond citations. Creating lists of important books to read to educate oneself is just a starting point. Creating Equality, Diversity and Inclusion initiatives does not actually include those who remain opposed to and harmed by the neoliberal university. White women proclaiming their departments as inclusive and safe spaces lack awareness. What, then, is the function of the university, these external committees and the role of a professor? I ask these rhetorical questions with Ahmed’s poignant gesture to the role of power in mind: ‘those who challenge how power works come to know how power works’ (47). Many of us have encountered these acts of power many, many times, and I’m certain we will see more demonstrations and manifestations of it despite what Ahmed’s work should be provoking, which is change to a particular but resistant institution and culture.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Banner Image Credit: Photo by ron dyar on Unsplash.


Book Review: Skateboarding in Seoul: A Sensory Ethnography by Sander Hölgens

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 25/05/2022 - 8:16pm in

In Skateboarding in Seoul: A Sensory Ethnography, Sander Hölgens immerses body, board and camera lens in Seoul’s skateboarding scene to explore local variants of the ethos of authenticity that shapes skateboarding as a global subculture. While the book could situate itself more within broader academic research on skateboarding in different contexts, it is nonetheless full of fascinating and lovingly researched content, writes Duncan McDuie-Ra.

Skateboarding in Seoul: A Sensory Ethnography. Sander Hölgens. University of Groningen Press. 2021.

For most skateboarders, even at the professional level, the draw of skateboarding is being able to live in joyous delinquency for as long as possible. Skateboarding’s ethos of authenticity is a counterbalance to cyclical periods of popularity — such as its inclusion in the 2020 Olympic Games — and periods of disinterest — when corporations and mainstream culture desert skateboarding. To put it another way, the subculture, not the sport, is the core. Skateboarding in Seoul: A Sensory Ethnography reminds us that skateboarding is a global subculture.

Author Sander Hölsgens immerses body, board and camera lens in Seoul’s skateboarding scene and its global connections to deliver rich insights into the local variants of this ethos of authenticity. Immersion is common in skateboarding research as the bodily and sensory experiences, semiotics within and across spoken languages and ways of gazing at the urban landscape to identify objects and surfaces of desire are difficult to comprehend without participation during research and, in many cases, in years prior. Hölgens participates in the Seoul skate scene as a skater, researcher, but also as a filmmaker and as a collaborator with a local skate brand affording unique experiences and encounters.

South Korea is a liminal node in skateboarding’s global subcultural cartography. It is neither part of the cultural core — though it is moving closer as Hölgens demonstrates in this book — nor is it a peripheral space where skateboarding is in its infancy and where spots to skate, equipment and instruction are scarce. Indeed, Hölgens suggests that skateboarding in Seoul is characterised by abundance: of skate shops, skate equipment (to ride and to film/photograph), skateparks and skate spots throughout the ‘city of pristine surfaces and polished granite’ (9).

Person on skate ramp

Image Credit: Photo by Erik Hansman on Unsplash

Skateboarders in Seoul navigate tensions between skateboarding as escape, the chance to recast oneself as an outsider, and skateboarding as a planned activity in planned space, the city’s numerous skateparks. Hölgens’s explorations of these tensions are the strongest contributions of the book. Many of the skateboarders featured in the work seek escape (talchul) from parental and social pressures (Hell-Joseon) through skateboarding, ‘proposing marble instead of hell’ (15).

Most fascinating is that the skaters resist both the pressures of state/society/family and the common ways that young and not-so-young Koreans cope with these pressures. Hölsgens writes that, sharing a conversation with one of the local skaters, ‘skaters perform a subtle critique of Hell-Joseon by valuing their well-being, by resisting socio-political pressures that would limit their life, by taking care of one another, such that there is an escape from societal misconduct and pressures’ (53).

The unexpected flipside of individuality, independence and expression are the ways in which skaters in Seoul enact these desires in the skatepark rather than the streets. In other nodes of skateboarding, especially the US, Europe and Australia, skateparks are seen as vital yet inauthentic spaces for street skateboarding. They are legitimate training grounds and meeting sites, but street skateboarding gains legitimacy by being performed and captured (as video or image) where it is not supposed to, activating surveillance, security guards and hostile architecture such as skate-stoppers. Furthermore, it is skateboarding in the streets that reproduces the ethos of the subculture, constantly on the edge of illegality.

In Seoul, skateparks are an extension of the home on the one hand, but also an escape from the familial home on the other. They provide skaters with ‘an idealised conception of what homes can be, through a communing of space […] where one can take a nap or prepare dinner, without having to conform to the set of socio-cultural norms that relate to either decisively public or private life in South Korea’ (58). Hölgens connects this to spatial cultures in South Korea, where public spaces are not only used for what is generally accepted as public behaviour but also include meetings, cooking, eating, sleeping and singing, among other activities. Skateparks thus take on a sense of domesticity, care and inclusion that draws skaters of different backgrounds, genders, sexualities and skill levels.

The unexpected challenge for skate brands in Seoul is getting talented skateboarders to take their skills out of the skatepark and to the streets, primarily to produce content with a global resonance. Hölgens explores the ways globally connected skaters, magazines and filmers try to implore skaters to explore the city and find spots, particularly in the magazine Unsung (87-89). There is a disjuncture between the ways a mobile class of global skateboarders sees Seoul, as a city of perfect granite and marble spots that can be visited with filmers and photographers to produce content for sponsors, and the ways many local skaters turn their back on the urban wilds in favour of the certainty of the city’s skateparks.

However, global aesthetics do travel, and Hölgens goes into depth on Korean skate videos, notably Hunger (2016), that emulate the look and feel of classic skate videos from the US and elsewhere, including the use of the VX1000 camera favoured by skate filmers in the 1990s and 2000s. Skate filmers in Seoul draw direct parallels to the look and feel of classic skate videos in the book, and they create a ‘mimetic world, in which the old is made new and lived experiences are undermined, or at least retold, rearticulated, and rigorously choreographed, so as to mimic a glorified idea of what skateboarding ought to look and feel like’ (101). The use of the VX1000 in an urban landscape associated with cutting-edge technology suggests these aesthetic choices ‘construct a tangible affinity between skateboarding in Seoul and the practice elsewhere’ (105).

Skateboarding in Seoul offers fascinating insights into the ways skateboarding travels as a subculture and displays elements of ‘mimesis and alterity’ in different contexts. Overall, however, the book forgoes opportunities for deeper analysis. The main argument of the book is expressed as a series of ambiguities at different points along the way. Thus, we learn that skateboarding in Seoul is ‘both formalised and fragmented, imposed and self-initiated, societal and individual, anti-establishment and middle-class, competitive and revolutionary’ (16); later, ‘situated and universalist, static and on the move, affectionate and rigid, well-outlined and spontaneous’ (106). The idea that skateboarding is multifarious within and between contexts is not exactly a surprise, and indeed readers attracted to a book on skateboarding in Seoul will likely share this starting point.

By the book’s end there is a strong sense of what skateboarding in Seoul is like, but not much on why this scene matters in affirming or challenging the ways we think about skateboarding, subcultural mimesis, class and consumption, or youth more broadly, whether in South Korea, Asia or beyond. This relates to the light-touch treatment of prior academic research on skateboarding in the book. While existing works are mentioned, the book lacks in-depth discussion of how different authors, disciplines and interdisciplinary fields have approached skateboarding in different contexts, the questions they ask, where they direct their focus and the ways their arguments align with — and depart from — this study. An additional chapter would not be too arduous for readers in what is a short book overall. Some risk-taking in the argument and in drawing together the book’s broader significance would bolster Skateboarding in Seoul’s otherwise fascinating and lovingly researched content.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. 


Book Review: Water and Public Policy in India by Deepti Acharya

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 24/05/2022 - 11:43pm in

In Water and Public Policy in IndiaDeepti Acharya explores the conceptual and theoretical frameworks behind the notion of a right to water, drawing on the evolution of water policy frameworks in India. This book enriches discourses around water justice through a water governance perspective, writes Kalrav Joshi.

Water and Public Policy in India. Deepti Acharya. Routledge India. 2021.

Water and Public Policy in India coverThe ideological origins of the idea of ‘a human right to water’, which led to the institutionalisation of this notion, remain structurally flawed and deeply problematic for the interests of ‘water-poor’ states. Disseminating and channelling this top-down approach at the behest of global organisations will not resolve any of the embedded complexities – it is a fantasy that cannot achieve targets for the humanitarian water management process and prevents equality for the ‘have-nots’.

In light of the hegemony of the idea that water is a right, Water and Public Policy in India explores the conceptual and theoretical frameworks underpinning the ‘right to water’ and advocates using this term in place of ‘human rights to water’. According to author Deepti Acharya, the latter term is a top-down approach, whereas the former is not only comprehensive but also based on a rights-based approach. This helps in policymaking and analysis, along with setting priorities for water policy to ensure no individual is deprived of sufficient water supply. By underlining India’s national water policies, Acharya argues that this can introduce a new water policy framework at the global level.

At the international level, the concept of the ‘right to water’ has been introduced and advanced through two major discourses. The first discourse contends that this idea has arisen and developed along the course of regulation. The fundamental contention here is that worldwide organisations have distinguished water as a right and have guaranteed access to water through global interventions.

The second discourse, advanced as a component of the water justice movement, dismisses this case by arguing that genuine change has been brought about by water researchers and water activists who have pressurised states to guarantee the right to water for all. Situating these arguments in modern political thought, Acharya defines the ‘right to water’ as a ‘process that is interlinked with many aspects, including rights, duties and priorities’ (34).

Dripping tap

Image Credit: Photo by Shridhar Vashistha on Unsplash

Positioning ‘water scarce’ states at the centre of its analysis, the book argues quite convincingly that the concept of the ‘right to water’ is only achievable when there is an established, efficient system and a just water supply, backed by rights, duties and priorities. The book interrogates the required mutual understanding between governments and individuals necessary to secure the ‘availability, accessibility and affordability’ of water for everyone. Acharya writes: ‘To maintain this condition, it is important to ensure and preserve water through policy structures’ (35).

One of the most compelling and engaging parts of the book, which is at its core, is its analysis of India’s national water policies that were drafted in 1987, 2002 and 2012 respectively. The details are revealing. The book is critical of the approaches taken by the Indian government in making national policies and identifies missing elements like the monitoring of equal water supply, specific mentions of Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes and arrangements to ensure the sustenance of water resources will guarantee the right to water to every individual.

The book vehemently argues that the concept of the ‘right to water’ was completely ignored in national water policies in India. Though the entire concept of the ‘right to water’ was at a nascent stage in India, it is noteworthy that national water policies were strategy-centric, focusing on a needs-based approach for distribution and management. However, they barely focused on water justice and therefore were bound to fail given these circumstances.

The formation of national water policies in India evolved from a top-down approach to a participatory one by the national water policy of 2012. Despite this paradigm shift in policymaking, the question of public-private partnerships remains the biggest concern. The book also identifies concerns regarding the making of policy, the language used and policy implementation without a sense of the values key for the development of water discourses. The book is also an attempt to look beyond the conventional ways of relying on the legislature and the executive in policymaking, arguably positioning the Indian judiciary and civil society as key expounders of the ‘right to water’.

One of the book’s chapters focuses on the Indian understanding of the ‘right to water’ and its contours. It chronicles this right from the time of British colonial rule, where water was the subject of management and control by the central government, to the post-independence (constitutional) setting that more or less protected water as a right. Though colonial rule might have resulted in the formation of a public system of water management, it is notable that this system did not endorse water as a right. In fact, it was the subject of management, an exploitative way to have control over the rights of individuals in using water resources.

The book introduces the major traditions in the concept of water justice with a series of critiques from different ideologies including neo-Marxism, eco-feminism and post-liberalism. It moves between the academic and practical aspects of the great looming public policy challenges in the environmental space, including the power dynamics that the process is always subjected to. Questions are raised, often swaddled in data and ethics, and met with key frameworks that should pave the way for a better, egalitarian world with the equal allocation of water as a resource.

The book attempts to introduce a new water policy framework that offers a set of principles and benchmarks on which the idea of a ‘right to water’ can be based, titled the ‘Water Policy Analysis Guiding Framework’. This is a useful and important tool to analyse the contents of water laws, planning strategies and water policies that focus on realism and emphasise reality checks. Furthermore, the book intervenes by suggesting ideas and formulations for policymakers and planners. These include enriching water policies by establishing and institutionalising honest think tanks, encouraging water-related studies inclined towards water justice, undertaking rigorous academic work that can become a support system for policymakers and redefining people’s participation in water-related discourses and planning, among many other proposals.

The book could have explored a number of questions in more detail. To what extent does this concept of a ‘right to water’ pose a challenge to the existing hegemony around water governance and justice? In which ways do such interventions reflect the paradigm shifts and the looming crisis around water shortages? How is it relevant to the debates in international development and regional empowerment? Does using appropriate terminology make the concept of a ‘right to water’ more effective and less problematic? The book is nonetheless of critical importance to scholars and researchers of public policy, environment, water and law – particularly in the context of South Asian studies. It raises moral, geographical, political, social and economic questions regarding the consequences of policy formulation – economic and geographical exploitation – embedded within top-down notions of sustainable development and governance.

Acharya’s book critically evaluates the notion of the ‘right to water’ by considering a range of theories, ideologies and the practical implications of one of the most looming issues of our times. It is a significant attempt to understand discourses on rights as it pinpoints and discusses the threats for water freedoms and water equalities and it enriches water justice discourse through a water governance perspective. The question is how long the world will take to institutionalise this concept. There is a long way ahead.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. 


Book Review: Solferino 21: Warfare, Civilians and Humanitarians in the Twenty-First Century by Hugo Slim

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 24/05/2022 - 9:19pm in

In Solferino 21: Warfare, Civilians and Humanitarians in the Twenty-First CenturyHugo Slim explores the history, present and future of warfare and the humanitarian sector in the 21st century. Duncan Green recommends this beautifully written and significant book. 

The original version of this review was published on From Poverty to Power

Solferino 21: Warfare, Civilians and Humanitarians in the Twenty-First Century. Hugo Slim. Hurst. 2022. 

Solferino 21 book coverI finished reading Hugo Slim’s overview of the humanitarian system and its future on the way to a workshop we were both delivering in Nairobi, so it was good to write up the review while it was still fresh.

First, the weird title: Solferino 21: Warfare, Civilians and Humanitarians in the Twenty-First Century is a reference to Henri Dunant’s book about the bloody 1859 Battle of Solferino. That book, and Dunant’s activism, is credited with founding much of modern humanitarianism, and Slim was funded to write a reflection for its 160th anniversary by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC, which Dunant founded) and the National Red Cross Societies of Germany, Norway and the UK.

The result is superb (if a bit uneven) – a great introduction to the history, present and future of the humanitarian sector in the 21st century (hence the ‘21’), deeply personal, sometimes iconoclastic and beautifully written. I learned a huge amount.

The book subdivides into three big chunks: warfare; civilians (a term that only emerged after World War One, apparently); and the humanitarian system.

Throughout, there is a great sense of historical sweep and evolution, along with some powerful writing: ‘Most people experience war as poverty not as battle. It is the civilian, not the wounded soldier, who stands at the centre of the moral frame we put around war.’

Old Red Cross armband

Photo by Julien Flutto on Unsplash

My favourite section (if I can use that word) was the first. It’s a brilliant summary of the nature of warfare in the early 21st century and its likely evolution. Slim’s unflinching gaze on violence and forensic grasp of strategy may have something to do with his family background – his father commanded the SAS and his grandfather led the British World War Two campaign in Burma. He seems as keen to understand as to condemn: ‘war remains extremely resilient as a political strategy […] Great Powers and billions of ordinary people still believe in war.’

His take on ‘next generation warfare’ is seriously scary, predicting a return to ‘big war’ between major powers, foreseeing warfare interwoven with other crises like climate change and delving into the ethical and practical challenges promoted by warfare involving AI-driven machines: ‘What if a largely autonomous warbot has to make a sudden judgement call in a morally ambiguous situation? Perhaps it is hit by enemy fire, begins to lose control and has a choice between crashing into a school or a busy supermarket.’

Oddly, the ‘Civilians’ section is the weakest – perhaps Slim said all he had to say on the matter in his previous book Killing Civilians. It has a good statistical overview, but the binary world he paints of civilians and aid agencies has little to say on politics, public authority, the role of faith organizations or diasporas, or civilian-led violence. He remains reliably iconoclastic, however: ‘Men remain the forgotten civilians […] humanitarians have been overly feminizing the civilian by repeatedly emphasizing ‘‘women and children’’ and hardly mentioning men at all.’

The final section, on humanitarians, is a brilliant primer for anyone coming new to the field. Slim lives and breathes the humanitarian system, knows its history inside out and makes a perfect guide to its intricacies and arcane disputes.

Slim is a critical believer in the system, arguing that ‘today’s international system of humanitarian aid is an extraordinary ethical and operational achievement’ that saves countless lives. He contrasts the death tolls in wars before it was in place: even in contemporary conflicts like Syria, more people perished in comparable events in the pre-humanitarian past.

But he has deep misgivings about several aspects of the way the humanitarian system has evolved. These include the white saviour complex (he is a passionate advocate of localisation), but also its tendency to mission creep. Humanitarianism in its modern form pursues change on multiple fronts, not just saving lives, but essentially advocating for something like Western welfare states and human rights at a granular level. This has made humanitarian aid ‘increasingly ambitious, complicated, expensive and utopian’.

His proposal? Humanitarianism needs to pursue three goals: global coverage; delivery by national institutions; and simple aid (he’s a big fan of cash transfers and small grants).

By global coverage, Slim means finding ways to work alongside non-Western forms of humanitarianism: what he calls ‘humanitarian self-determination’. ‘Humanitarian multilateralism should not be a struggle to ensure global access for the Western system’, but rather to accept a multipolar world where China, India, Russia and mid-level powers all have different approaches, and the patchwork that results.

Delivery by national institutions involves changing mindsets away from ‘expeditionary humanitarianism’ that focuses on individual rights and ‘from helping individuals in need to supporting organizations’ – and those organisations need to be local ones.

His final call to action is great: ‘The new generation of humanitarians now has a choice. They can continue to become the masters of their own complicated bureaucracies, who are trying to understand every angle of human identity and experience in war and respond to every kind of suffering [….] Or they can work to a simpler ambition. They can decide that global humanitarian aid is not a utopian project of perfection that should repair, adapt and reform every part of a person and the society around them. Freed from mastering everything, they can then focus on one big thing: sharing power and teaming better with local and national institutions to help hundreds of millions of people keep themselves alive as the agents of their own survival, and the change makers in their own societies.’

A really significant book. Warmly recommended.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. 


Book Review: Free: Coming of Age at the End of History by Lea Ypi

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 23/05/2022 - 9:19pm in

In her award-winning memoir FreeLea Ypi reflects on the paradoxes of freedom through her recollections of coming of age at the collapse of communist Albania in December 1990 and its transition from Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship to a presumably freer, capitalist and more democratic nation. This stylistically elegant and thought-provoking book is a significant contribution to understanding a period of Albania’s transition still left underexplored and will be read for many years to come, writes Andi Haxhiu

If you are interested in this book review, you can watch a video and listen to a podcast of Lea Ypi discussing Free at LSE, recorded on 1 November 2021. Professor Lea Ypi will also be reflecting on ‘The Future of Democracy’ with Dr Mukulika Banerjee and Dr Yascha Mounk as part of the upcoming LSE Festival 2022, running from Monday 13 June to Saturday 18 June 2022. 

Free: Coming of Age at the End of History. Lea Ypi. Penguin. 2021

Book cover of FreeLea Ypi’s book, Free: Coming of Age at the End of History, arrived in Prishtina, Kosova’s capital city, on 5 January 2022. Free has been translated into nineteen languages and has received immense international support, having won the RSL Ondaatje Prize and been shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize, the Costa Biography Award and the Slightly Foxed Best First Biography Prize. Considering the author’s success with the book and the outstanding reviews following its publication, Prishtina might have been just another routine destination in the book’s promotion schedule.

However, despite my initial hesitancy, I travelled from Edinburgh to my hometown to meet Ypi, a Professor of Political Theory in LSE Department of Government, whom I have long admired for her scholarly contributions through The Meaning of Partisanship (co-authored with Jonathan White), Global Justice and Avant-Garde Political Agency and The Architectonic of Reason. The theoretical complexity of Ypi’s work has always been riveting and enticing in academic circles. Nevertheless, it was through Free that Ypi received extensive commercial coverage and recognition for the masterful crafting of a book that exposes the paradoxes of freedom through the blissful ignorance of a child coming of age at the end of history.

Ypi’s story starts at the dawn of the collapse of Europe’s last Stalinist state, Albania, in December 1990. Through an exquisite literary writing gift, she illustrates Albania’s transition from leader Enver Hoxha’s violent and murderous dictatorship to a presumably freer, capitalist, liberal and more democratic country. This rupture posed an opportunity for Ypi to retroactively theorise and reflect on the meaning of freedom. Yet, the author’s longstanding philosophical and scholarly preoccupations with migration, justice and freedom are often intrinsically related to this episode in her life.

Trapped between two conflicting narratives following the collapse of communist Albania, Ypi’s experience of freedom inexplicably transformed when she understood that her parents clearly did not care about ‘visiting Uncle Enver’s grave nor about keeping his photo in [their] living room’ anymore (47). As she adroitly puts it in the latter stages of the book: ‘Things were one way, and then they were the other. I was someone, then I became someone else’ (117). This profound assertion that illustrates unexpected change is what simultaneously encapsulates the uncertainties of coming of age at a cleavage in history. To rephrase Rosa Luxemburg in this context: ‘Ypi has not made history out of her free will. But she has made history, nevertheless.’ Free is a significant literary contribution to a period of Albania’s transition still left underexplored due to an unwritten pact of silence.

Durrës, Albania, 1978

Image Credit: ‘Street scene in Durrës with propaganda posters’ by Robert Schediwy licensed under CC BY SA 3.0

Free is definitely an easy read, but it is also throughout a thought-provoking nonfiction book that explores the relationship between freedom and hope through figurative, poetic language. It is also an elaboration of how Ypi’s experience of liberalism can be equated with ‘broken promises, the destruction of solidarity, the right to inherit privilege, and turning a blind eye to injustices’ (253). A stylistically elegant and often emotionally overwhelming narrative unfolds multifaceted dilemmas and questions on freedom through exploring family dynamics, dialogues and tensions.

The book’s dialogical nature is evident in the first chapter, ‘Stalin’, where teacher Nora’s lectures and the young Ypi’s curious character set the tone for the rest of the book. It is precisely the uncontestedness of Hoxha’s regime that makes Ypi’s innocent questions the epitome of doubt. Thus, the book’s first sentence – ‘I never asked about the meaning of freedom until the day I hugged Stalin’ – introduces the first overlap between state-sponsored dogmatism and individual scepticism. As she vividly narrates the events of that day, eleven-year-old Ypi finds herself metres away from some protesters of the regime chanting ‘Freedom, Democracy’. Despite her initial denial, the existing system was shifting while Ypi was clinging to the legs of Stalin’s decapitated gigantic bronze statue. This is the moment when young Ypi starts questioning and, simultaneously, understanding the plural nature of histories.

Despite its powerful tone and fascinating explanations of complex historical episodes, the reconstruction of the 1990s December protests appears slightly contrived. To exemplify, it has been claimed that Durrës, Ypi’s hometown, never had a Stalin statue; rather, Stalin was commemorated through a bust – which technically means that Stalin never had legs to cling on. Ypi’s opening to the book thus appears to rather work as a metaphorical depiction of one’s inability to let go of a reality that is unexpectedly changing.

Although perhaps overlooked by the international reader, these minor inaccurate depictions of Albania’s collective memory have triggered ‘vicious’ domestic reactions that criticised the book for intentional manipulation. Ypi’s subjective literary recollection of Albania’s prolonged unaddressed collective trauma with its Stalinist dictator, Hoxha, enraged numerous reactionary voices in Ypi’s hometown who perceived Free as an apology for communism and criticised it for factual inconsistencies. What some readers have failed to fathom is that the book is not a historiographical account of communist and post-communist Albania. It is exactly here where Ypi’s reputation as a respected scholar was (mis)used by certain circles to frame the book within the boundaries of academic rigour. However, Free is neither academic nor historiographical; it is a personal history that explains the continuous quest for freedom through witty humour, accessible language and metaphorical twists.

Some of the book’s reviews nonetheless missed facts that were repeatedly mentioned. For example, Stuart Jeffries’s otherwise informative Guardian review shifts Ypi’s Stalin story from the author’s hometown, Durrës, to Albania’s capital city, Tirana. Such readings of the book often unintentionally exoticise both the author’s experience and the location where the story takes place. This unrelatability stands in contrast with the reading experiences of those who directly lived through Hoxha’s traumatic dictatorship.

In my short interaction with Ypi in Prishtina, she fascinatingly pointed out the disparities between the recollection of her memories in English and Albanian. The first, Ypi argued, was much more emotionally distant. On the other hand, the Albanian version, Të Lirë ­­– which is a rewritten version rather than a conventional translation of the English-language book – enabled the author to emotionally relive some of the dialogues that had taken place more than three decades ago. The recollection and reconstruction of these conversations, Ypi told me, were significantly more traumatic as the reminiscing took place in the authentic form of her mother tongue. Here, I understood why international and Albanian audiences had experienced Ypi’s masterful text so distinctively.

Despite the gulf between overidentifying with and denying Ypi’s narrative, it is safe to say that Free is not an attempt to manipulate the past because it does not aspire to monopolise the truth. Instead, it reconstructs Ypi’s memories by converging her own subjective experiences, diaries and dialogues. Her philosophical preoccupations with freedom continuously traverse the lines between memory and imagination throughout the book. As psychologist Frederic Bartlett would argue, Ypi’s remembering of the events portrayed so vividly are a product of the constructive process of integrating bits and pieces of information, rather than a literal replaying of the past. Therefore, the emphasis on minor historiographical inaccuracies in some of the responses to the book seems to be missing one crucial point: Free is based on a true story, but it is not the true story. It narrates the thin line between facts and literary imagination. It is a book written about the end of history that did not happen. A book that will stand the test of time and be read for many years to come.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

Feature image credit: Crop of ‘interakcja (8)’ by InterAkcja Robert Turski licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Weird Consilience: A Review of Joseph Henrich’s ‘The WEIRDest People in the World’

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 21/05/2022 - 12:55am in

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The anthropologist Joseph Henrich has written a book called The WEIRDest People in the World. It offers a captivating look at the roots of Western psychology (and capitalism). Here is my in-depth review.

* * *

Edward O. Wilson, the famed evolutionary biologist and entomologist, argued that the goal of science should be to construct a single ‘consilient’ tree of knowledge. For the most part, the natural sciences have achieved this vision. Modern chemistry is rooted in quantum physics, and the study of biology is based on organic chemistry. When we get to the social sciences, however, we run into problems. On the spectrum of life on Earth, human behavior seem so exceptional that it is difficult to make the social sciences fit with the rest of biology.

The trouble is human culture.

Or more precisely, the dilemma is how to make sense of culture in light of evolution. One option is to claim that culture doesn’t really exist, meaning the behaviors we think are ‘learned’ are actually instinctive. This idea is clearly wrong. It implies, for example, that reading is genetic. And yet the spread of literacy has been so rapid that it cannot possibly be due to changing genes. Another option is to claim that humans are ‘blank slates’ whose behavior is determined almost completely by culture. But since some behaviors are obviously instinctive (i.e. breathing), we find that the supposedly ‘blank’ slate is not actually empty.

So the truth about human behavior lies somewhere in the middle; actions are determined jointly by genes and culture. Okay, but then where does culture come from? Surprisingly, it took a long time for scientists to realize the answer. Similar to genes, cultures evolve.

The roadblock to studying cultural evolution was mostly philosophical. For much of the 20th century, scientists tried to reduce evolution to competition between individuals. (Richard Dawkins popularized this worldview in his book The Selfish Gene.) While the individualist lens works well for animals that are asocial, for social animals it leads to a large blind spot: it negates the idea of group-level adaptations. And as it turns out, that’s the best way to understand culture. Human culture is a group-level adaptation. The idea is that cultures evolve when groups compete. Winning groups spread their culture. Losing groups don’t.

In the last few decades, the idea of cultural evolution has become more popular, giving rise to some fascinating new research. What’s important is that cultural evolution gives us a lens to make sense of history — a lens that is consilient with the rest of evolutionary biology.

Joseph Henrich’s book The WEIRDest People in the World is a major contribution to the study of cultural evolution. Like many big-picture histories, Henrich traces the evolution of Western culture. However, the story that Henrich tells is highly original. He argues that Western culture arose from norms around sex. Let’s say that again: Henrich claims that the rise of the West stems from norms around sex.

Skeptical? So was I. But after reading Henrich’s book, I am convinced that he is on the right track. It seems that we may owe Western culture to an odd little religion that got obsessed with banning all forms of incest. Of course, WEIRDest People doesn’t have all the pieces of the puzzle. (There are some important omissions, which I’ll discuss.) But overall, Henrich’s book offers a compelling new perspective on human history.

WEIRD psychology

In WEIRDest People, Henrich approaches history from an unusual angle. In epics about the rise and fall of civilizations, we rarely hear about psychology. And yet that is precisely where Henrich begins his account of Western history.

Some backstory. For most of the last century, scientists assumed that human psychology was roughly universal. The idea was that Amazon hunter gatherers (for example) would respond to psychological tests similarly to American college students. This assumption made life easy for psychologists. They could study college students (who were cheap and easy test fodder) and then assume that their results would hold across all cultures. Unfortunately, most psychologists never bothered to verify that this assumption was true.

It was an Aristotelian mistake.1

It turns out that human psychology varies significantly across cultures. Worse still, college students (who tend to be rich and mostly from Western societies) are not in the middle of the pack. No, in almost every way, college students are weird. Hence the title of Henrich’s book, The WEIRDest People. The word ‘WEIRD’ is Henrich’s acronym for people who are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic. Compared to other cultures, WEIRD people are:

  1. more individualistic
  2. more ‘impersonally prosocial’ (trusting of strangers)
  3. show less favoritism to in-groups
  4. focused more on mental states (when judging ethics)
  5. more analytical
  6. more prone to universalism
  7. more overconfident

A decade ago, Henrich and his colleagues documented the unusual features of WEIRD psychology. In The WEIRDest People, Henrich tries to explain how these traits ‘evolved’. I’ve used scare quotes here because to many social scientists, the word ‘evolved’ means ‘encoded in genes’. Henrich, however, is certain that there’s nothing genetic about WEIRD psychology. It is a product of cultural evolution.

Backing this claim, Henrich notes that WEIRD people tend to be highly literate. But since people from all cultures can learn to read (given sufficient opportunity), literacy cannot be genetic. Bolstering this reasoning, evidence suggests that learning to read alters both our brains and our psychology. Compared to people who cannot read, literate populations tend to have thicker corpus callosa and (oddly) worse facial recognition.2

So if not genetics, then what explains WEIRD psychology? Is it a byproduct of industrialization? Or maybe a consequence of the Enlightenment? Henrich thinks not. Instead, he argues that the seeds of Western psychology were planted more than a millennia ago, largely by accident. What happened is that Europeans got obsessed with incest.

Incest taboos

The idea that Western psychology was caused by incest taboos seems outlandish. Yet once Henrich works through the evidence, the hypothesis seems plausible. That’s because incest taboos cut to the core of kin relations. And kin relations cut to the core of human organization.

So let’s talk about bans on incest.

To most people, the notion of incest elicits a strong ethical reaction. Incest is wrong. But why do we feel this way? The (seemingly) obvious answer is that it’s instinctive. We know that incest is damaging to sexual reproduction. Therefore, sexually reproducing organisms (like humans) will evolve instincts to avoid it.3

Although it seems plausible that human incest taboos are instinctive, this claim runs into two major problems. First, incest taboos vary greatly between cultures. Second, these taboos often ban relationships that have nothing to do with biological incest. For example, Woody Allen was widely criticized when he married his adopted daughter. (Doing so clearly violated Western norms.) And yet the relationship was not ‘incestuous’ in any biological sense. So it seems that like most human behaviors, incest taboos are the joint product of genes and culture. Whatever incest-avoiding instinct we might have, culture can ramp it up or down.

So incest taboos are cultural. Fine. But why should we care about them? While these taboos are certainly titillating (especially if they are drastically different than our own), it’s hard to see why they are of scientific interest. And yet Henrich puts these taboos at the center of his work. That seems odd … but it is actually quite clever.

To understand why incest taboos are important to the study of cultural evolution, consider the following question: why do royal families tend to inbreed?4 One possibility is that marrying close relatives is some sort of royal fetish. But if so, why is royal inbreeding so common throughout history? A more plausible explanation is that the social structure of royalty somehow demands incestuous marriage.

To make sense of this possibility, note that marriage is about more than just sex. Marriage is an institution that cements bonds between families. And when it comes to royalty, these family ties are key. To be ‘royal’ is to be part of an extended lineage that traces bloodlines back to a common noble ancestor. Now, a key feature of bloodlines is that they tend to dilute with each generation. And this dilution, in turn, threatens the integrity of the clan. To combat this problem, kin-based groups often rely on marriage between relatives as a way to reinforce the lineage. Hence the tendency for royals (the quintessential kin group) to inbreed.

Today, this royal tendency seems like a quirk. But it is actually a remnant of the past. In Western society, royals are the last vestiges of a social structure called ‘intensive kinship’, in which groups are organized around blood ties. This social structure, Henrich argues, once dominated Europe. In fact, it likely dominated most civilizations. So if you think that marrying your cousin is odd, it’s because you come from a weird new culture that rejects kin-based organization. The goal of Henrich’s book is to explain how this WEIRD culture evolved.

Human history in three acts

After introducing the reader to WEIRD psychology, Henrich attempts to reconstruct the evolution of Western society, starting with the big picture. According to Henrich, human history has three acts. In Act I, humans lived as hunter gatherers. In Act II, we started to farm. And in Act III, we built a global industrial civilization.

Each of these acts, Henrich argues, came with a distinct form of social organization. Hunter gathers built their (small) groups around loose networks of kin — a social structure the Henrich calls ‘extensive kinship’. With agriculture, humans started to build tight-knit clans based around bloodlines — a form of organization that Henrich calls ‘intensive’ kinship. And with industrialization, humans built massive groups based on ‘voluntary’ (non-kin) organization.

Let’s take a tour though each act.

Act I: Extensive kinship

Henrich’s discussion of extensive kinship is brief, and is designed mostly to highlight what extensive kinship is not. It is not intensive kinship. And it is not large-scale, voluntary organization.

Basically, Henrich thinks that early human groups organized using informal kin networks that served mostly as safety nets. So if your hunt failed, for example, you could get food from your neighboring kin. In other words, kin were people you could trust, but not people you could command. As I see it, that’s the defining difference between ‘extensive’ and ‘intensive’ kinship. When agrarian societies started to build tight-knit extended lineages, the effect was to create a hierarchy. The patriarch could tell the rest of the family what to do. In ‘extensive’ kinships, however, there was no chain of command.5

The difference between extensive and intensive kinship, Henrich argues, is evident in differing incest taboos. Similar to WEIRD people, foraging societies organized using extensive kinship tend to have fairly expansive incest taboos. For example, the Ju/’hoansi peoples ban marriage between third cousins (and closer). Other foraging groups like the Wathaurung, organize in ‘clans’, and then ban intermarriage within a clan. (Many agrarian groups encourage marriage within the extended clan.) The effect of these expansive taboos, Henrich claims, is to suppress the formation of lineages.

So in terms of their marriage norms, early humans were likely similar to modern, Western societies. And yet Westerners organize into groups that are thousands of times larger than their ancient counterparts. How?

The answer, Henrich claims, is that Western societies have developed a suite of institutions that enable large-scale voluntary organization. For example, a WEIRD person would think nothing of driving to a neighboring city and ordering a coffee from a stranger. While seemingly banal, such behavior is quite odd. Throughout most of human history, approaching strangers uninvited meant risking death. Today, members of industrialized societies take for granted the host of norms and laws that enable interactions between strangers. However, early humans had no such norms, and so interaction between groups was dominated by violence.

If Henrich is correct, human prehistory was spent in small egalitarian bands that were connected by blood ties, but not bound by them.

Then everything changed.

Act II: ‘Scaling up’ with intensive kinship

In Act II of human history, groups began to organize on progressively larger scales. This shift clearly had something to do with the emergence of agriculture. However, Henrich is more concerned with the changing social structure that came with it. As groups got larger, they abandoned the loose bonds of extensive kinship and adopted a tighter network built on ‘intensive’ kinship.

To frame this change, we need to think about how and why some groups are able to organize on large scales, while others cannot. Perhaps the best way to understand this issue is to look at the history of European colonialism. When Europeans took over the world, their favorite technique was to ‘divide and conquer’. The idea is that to suppress resistance to colonial rule, you play local groups against each other. I have always been fascinated that this tactic worked. More generally, the fact that colonialism ever works seems a mystery.

Colonialism has a huge math problem: in most circumstances, the local population vastly outnumbers the invaders. Given this disadvantage, you’d think that the conquerors would consistently get massacred. True, anti-colonial victories did happen. (In North America, the most famous example is likely the Battle of Little Bighorn, where the U.S. military was slaughtered by a unified group of Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes.) Still, such reverse victories were rare. Why?

A common answer is that Europeans had better weapons. (‘Guns, germs and steel’, as Jared Diamond put it.) While surely true, this explanation is not the whole story. When anthropologists began to study the peoples that Europe had previously conquered, they noticed that local groups also played the colonial game (on a smaller scale). An invading group would conquer or displace neighboring tribes, despite being outnumbered (in total). Here, the technological playing field was level. And yet the neighboring groups didn’t unify to repel their invaders.6 Again, why?

A plausible explanation is that these small groups did not unify because they lacked the culture to do so. In other words, there is nothing ‘natural’ about large-scale organization. It does not happen automatically in the face of danger. Instead, large-scale organization requires a suite of cultural tools that take time to develop. So if a population of paleolithic people were suddenly threatened by the US military, they would not (and likely could not) mirror its command structure. And that is why colonialism ‘works’.

Looking at the cultural tools used by Western groups — things like money, property rights, laws, regulations, contracts, etc. — it is tempting to see them as the ‘normal’ way of organizing large groups. But these tools are fairly recent inventions. Long before they existed, societies ‘scaled up’ using a different technique: they ritualized kinship.

The idea is that the easiest route to social scale is not the laws and regulations that today enable ‘voluntary’ organization. The simpler path is to take humanity’s innate kin bias and ramp it up. Here’s how you do it. You track bloodlines back to a revered ancestor. You invent gods who oversee the extended lineage. You create rites of passage that give age cohorts a shared identity. You sanctify obligations between clans. You revere family ties. And so on. The effect of this ritualization is to solidify the extended lineage, allowing kin-groups to scale up.

By ritualizing blood ties, however, you also create problems. You set the stage for rule by birthright, and the despotism that goes with it.

Given this problem, why didn’t humans take the more ‘rational’ approach: skip divine kingship and go straight to representative democracy? The likely answer is that this ‘shortcut’ was not an option. Cultural evolution does not invent new designs from scratch. Instead, it builds on what exists. And what existed, when human societies first started to scale up, was an innate bias towards kin — a feature of our primate heritage. Cultural evolution took this bias and went to town. The result was that intensive kinship conquered the world.7

The limits of intensive kinship

Had Henrich been writing 3000 years ago, the story would essentially end here. During the Neolithic era, humans began to organize using intensive kinship, and this form of organization spread everywhere. Finis.

Of course, we know that the story does not end there. Today, we have organizations like Walmart and the US government — institutions that dwarf most previous human groups and yet are not built on kinship. Where did these ‘voluntary’ organizations come from? And why did they eventually replace intensive kinship as the dominant mode of organization?

A plausible answer is that intensive kinship comes with inherent limits, which non-kin organization managed to sidestep.

To understand these limits, we must first understand what intensive kinship does. In simple terms, it takes the nested structure of an extended lineage and turns it into a hierarchy. Figure 1 illustrates. When you trace bloodlines (indicated by straight lines), you inevitably get a family tree that has a nested structure: one founding ancestor gives rise to a tree of descendants. Intensive kinship takes this tree structure and uses it to create power relations. Within the clan, status depends on proximity to the ‘maximal lineage’ (the founding ancestor). By ritualizing bloodlines, intensive kinship unifies sub-groups who might otherwise be enemies.

Figure 1: Using kinship to create a hierarchy. This figure shows Henrich’s illustration of a segmentary lineage, a form of organization typical to intensive kinship. Segments of the population (curved lines) are organized hierarchically based on their lineage (straight lines).

When this ritualization of kin structure first emerged, the hierarchical bonds were likely loose. However, we know from history that these bonds eventually tightened into a strict chain of command. The result was kin-based dictatorships (i.e. monarchies).

Here we arrive at the problems with intensive kinship: it sets societies on the path to rule by birthright, which is not the nicest of institutions. Rule by birthright leads to things like divine kingship, a permanent aristocracy, and born servitude. In short, kin-based hierarchies tend to entrench inequality, which breeds resentment and instability.

Another problem with kin-based hierarchies is that blood ties are a poor way of choosing successors. Every generation, you roll the dice to see if the ruler will produce a ‘legitimate’ heir. If the ruler is infertile (or produces heirs out of wedlock or of the wrong sex) you end up with conflict. This issue of succession is no small matter, as Figure 2 illustrates. From 1648 to 1713, roughly one third of all interstate wars were fought (at least in part) over succession. Fortunately this fraction decreased over the following centuries, as states abolished (or limited the power of) hereditary monarchs. But going back in time, it seems likely that succession was a major source of war.

Figure 2: Wars of succession. This figures shows the fraction of interstate wars that involved issues of succession. The data is from Kalevi Holsti’s book Peace and war: Armed conflicts and international order, 1648-1989.

Related to the issue of succession is the problem of polygyny — the tendency for elite males to hoard wives. While humans likely evolved as a mildly polygynous species (a fact we infer from size differences between sexes), rule by birthright pressures elite males to be wildly polygynous. The formula is simple: more wives brings a higher chance of producing an heir, provides a conspicuous way to display power, and serves as a tool for building political alliances.

The trouble is that this hoarding of wives forces low status males into bachelorhood. Figure 3 illustrates the problem. On the left, monogamy means that every male can have a partner (at least in theory). On the right, a moderate amount of polygamy means that a large portion of men become unwilling bachelors.

Figure 3: The problem with polygyny. This figure shows Henrich’s illustration of ‘polygyny’s math problem’. On the left, monogamy means that every male finds a mate (at least in principle). On the right, a mild amount of polygyny means that a large portion of males become forced bachelors. This demographic shift leads to intense male conflict, which is corrosive to group cohesion.

So what’s wrong with bachelors? Well, as a group, they tend to create conflict. That’s because in polygynous societies, a main avenue for winning wives is to challenge elite men. In other words, polygyny — and the induced pool of bachelors — intensifies male competition. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with male competition. However, it does tend to undermine group cohesion. Let’s put it this way: when men are busy fighting over wives, what they are not doing is cooperating with each other.8 So if the goal is to foster a large, cohesive group, polygyny is a problem.

Now, what you need to know about polygyny is that in many agrarian (kin-based) societies, it reached outrageous levels. To give you some numbers, historians claim that ancient Chinese emperors had thousands of women in their harems. (The Chinese emperor Yangdi reportedly had 100,000 women in his palace.) These numbers are so large that they defy belief. And yet genetic evidence supports the fact that ancient rulers were wildly polygynous. For example, DNA analysis indicates that roughly 8% of men currently living in the former Mongolian empire are descendants of Genghis Khan.

Going back further, DNA evidence suggests that the Neolithic revolution came with an explosion in polygyny. Geneticist Monika Karmin and colleagues have found that starting around 10,000 years ago, there was massive bottleneck in the Y chromosome (the gene passed on by males). For some reason, the number of reproductive males plummeted, but the female population didn’t change. The likely cause was intense male competition, combined with runaway polygyny. As Genghis Khan would later put it, the strategy was to kill your enemies and steal their wives.9 Of course, this approached worked well for men like Khan. But it’s not the best way to build stable institutions.

In short, we know that intensive kinship can create fairly large groups. But it also comes with a host of problems that make kin-based organizations unstable.

Act III: Dismantling kinship lock in

The limits to kin-based organization are an example of the ‘lock-in effect’, whereby past decisions constrain the future. In Act III of human history, Henrich argues that Europeans sidestepped kinship lock in by dismantling their kin-based institutions. Over a period of about 1000 years, Europeans rebuilt their society using ‘voluntary’ organization.

At first, this restructuring might seem like an improbable turn of events. However, a look at the wider evolutionary landscape shows that nature is full of unlikely solutions to adaptive lock in.

Here’s an example. You might think that the largest sea animal would be a fish. After all, fish have been in the ocean for 500 million years, so they’ve had lots of time to grow large. And yet this reasonable expectation is wrong. The largest sea animal took a wildly improbable path to bigness. It started as a fish, moved onto land, evolved lungs, and then, 50 million years ago, moved back into the water. I’m talking, of course, about whales — air-breathing mammals that dwarf all other ocean life. (The blue whale is the largest animal alive, and also the largest animal ever to have lived.)

The story of whales makes little sense until you think about the limits faced by fish. As animals with gills, fish are locked into ‘breathing’ water, which is a poor source of oxygen. So as fish grow bigger, their gills struggle to keep up. Whales, however, can breath air, which is a rich source of oxygen. So by moving onto land and then back into water, whales sidestepped an evolutionary lock in.10 (For a broader discussion of evolutionary lock in, see my post The Evolution of ‘Big’: How Sociality Made Life Larger.)

Back to humans. If an ancient historian was asked to predict the largest institutions of the 21st century, they’d likely describe something that resembles a scaled-up mafia family. (This is a good description of royalty.) What the ancient historian would not predict is Walmart — a giant organization built on voluntary membership. The jump from mafia clans to Walmart is the social equivalent of the jump from fish to whales. It seems (and perhaps is) wildly improbable. Yet it happened. And so the task is to understand how and why.

The Church finds a weird obsession

For Henrich, the story of groups like Walmart begins long before most historians look for the origins of capitalism. Henrich takes us back to the fourth century, to a time when European culture headed in an odd direction.11

If Henrich is correct, the seeds of Western society were first planted in 305 CE. Let’s set the stage. At the time, the Catholic Church was spreading throughout Europe, and its followers were getting obsessed with incest. We don’t know why this obsession started. But we do know that it lasted for over a millennia, and that it likely transformed European society.

The Church’s ‘marriage and family program’, as Henrich calls it, got rolling in the year 305 when a synod (council) in Elvira, Spain, issued a strange decree. If a man marries the sister of his dead wife, the council ordered, he must abstain from communion for five years. And if a man marries his daughter-in-law, he should abstain from communion until near death. Although these policies were ostensibly about ‘communion’, their effect was to ban what anthropologists call ‘affinal’ marriage — marriage to your in-laws. The Church evidently thought such relationships were ‘incestuous’ (although, in biological terms, they are not). And so it sought to prohibit them.

What is important about this prohibition, Henrich argues, is that it removed a key tool for unifying the clan. When a spouse dies, affinal marriage helps keep the extended lineage together. Of course, one decree from one council does not transform a whole society. So what matters is that the Elvira decree was the first of many official doctrines that would be issued by the Church over the next 1000 years. By the 13th century, the Church had banned the following:

  1. Marriage to relatives out to sixth cousins;
  2. Polygamous marriage;
  3. Affinal (in-law) marriage;
  4. Arranged marriages;
  5. Adoption.

These prohibitions, Henrich argues, removed the key building blocks of intensive kinship. And so from the fourth century onward, the clans of Europe slowly died out, leading to a society built on non-kin organization.12

Church exposure, cousin marriage, and WEIRD psychology

If you are skeptical of Henrich’s thesis, you are in good company. When I first encountered his arguments about incest, I found them implausible. But after thinking about Henrich’s thesis — and the evidence underlying it — I now find it compelling.

Speaking of evidence, it seems unlikely that we can connect one-thousand-year-old church policies to the culture and psychology of modern Europeans. And yet we can. In a landmark 2019 study, Jonathan Schulz and colleagues made the connection. Here’s how they did it.

First, Schulz and colleagues looked at how long the Western Catholic Church had been present in different regions in Europe. (Only the Western Church got obsessed with banning incest.) Next, they looked at modern rates of cousin marriage in the same regions. When they put these two pieces of data together, they found a surprising connection: the longer the region’s exposure to the Church, the lower the rate of cousin marriage. Figure 4 shows the trend.

Figure 4: In regions of Europe, cousin marriage rates decline with longer exposure to the Western Church. Each point represents a region in Turkey, Spain, Italy or France. The vertical axis shows the rate of first cousin marriage. The horizontal axis shows the number of centuries that the region has been exposed to the Western Church (based on whether there was an active bishopric within 50 km). The data is from Jonathan Schulz and colleague’s paper ‘The Church, intensive kinship, and global psychological variation’. Their dataset is available here.

Now, its tempting to dismiss the rate of cousin marriage as a cultural quirk. But for Schulz (and Henrich), it is key indicator of social structure. Remember that cousin marriage is one of the main ways to consolidate an extended lineage. So when you reduce the rate of cousin marriage, it signals that intensive kinship is dying off. Therefore, the evidence in Figure 4 is consistent with Henrich’s thesis that the Catholic Church’s marriage policies killed off Europe’s clans.

So we’ve connected Church exposure to rates of cousin marriage. That’s step 1. Step 2 is to connect the cousin marriage rate to variation in psychology. Looking at the same regions in Europe, Schulz and colleagues again found strong correlations. As cousin marriage rates decline, people become:

  1. Less conformist;
  2. More inclined to be fair to strangers;
  3. More trusting of strangers;
  4. More individualist.

Figure 5 shows the trends. Each panel shows a different psychological metric, plotted against the rate of cousin marriage.

Figure 5: In regions of Europe, psychological traits vary with the rate of cousin marriage. Each point represents a region in Turkey, Spain, Italy or France. In each panel, the vertical axis shows the average value of the given psychological index within a region. The horizontal axis shows the rate of first cousin marriage. The data is from Jonathan Schulz and colleague’s paper ‘The Church, intensive kinship, and global psychological variation’. Their dataset is available here.

Similar trends appear between Italian provinces, as shown in Figure 6. In provinces with lower rates of cousin marriage, people store less of their wealth in cash, and are more likely to use checks. Both behaviors, Henrich argues, signal that as cousin marriage rates decline, people become more trusting of strangers and put more faith in impersonal institutions (i.e. banks). In other words, killing off intensive kinship enlarges people’s circle of trust.

Figure 6: In provinces of Italy, measures of financial trust vary with the rate of cousin marriage. Each point represents a province in Italy. The left panel shows how the percentage of financial wealth held in cash varies with the rate of cousin marriage. The right panel compares cousin marriage rates to percentage of people who use checks. The data is from Jonathan Schulz and colleague’s paper ‘The Church, intensive kinship, and global psychological variation’. Their dataset is available here.

In short, there is solid evidence connecting the spread of the Catholic Church to the death of intensive kinship and the rise of WEIRD psychology. What needs to be fleshed out is how this evidence relates to the institutions of modern capitalism.

From WEIRD psychology to Western culture

In the last third of his book, Henrich tries to connect WEIRD psychology to the ‘scaling up’ of Western society via industrial capitalism. I think he is partially successful. I say ‘partially’ because there is a disconnect between how Henrich defines ‘scaling up’ in the first third of the book and the last third. I’ll discuss this problem in a moment. But first, let’s focus on what, in my opinion, Henrich gets right.

One of the key features of WEIRD psychology is that it is ‘impersonally prosocial’. That’s a scientific way of saying that Westerners tend to trust strangers and treat them (almost) as fairly as they would treat friends and family. This impersonal prosocial stance, Henrich argues, is one of the hallmarks of commerce.13

Wait, is Henrich saying that markets encourage fairness? Yes … but only impersonal fairness. You see, while many non-market societies are famed for their generosity, their circle of fairness rarely extends to complete strangers (who are often feared). Markets, however, facilitate interactions between strangers. And they do it by instilling social norms (and laws) that encourage fair exchange. The result, Henrich argues, is that market exposure leads to increased impersonal fairness.

The evidence backs him up. In 2010, Henrich conducted a study in which individuals from different cultures were asked to split a sum of money with a stranger. Henrich found that people from more market-integrated societies tended to offer a more generous split. This evidence supports the idea that impersonal prosociality goes hand in hand with markets.

Henrich also argues that markets are a way to domesticate competition. The idea (which I’ve also explored) is that humans don’t need an incentive to compete with each other. Instead, we need cultural tools to suppress violent competition. Henrich agrees with Peter Turchin, who argues that the default human state was incessant warfare between tribes.

Markets take the violence out of competition. To compete with another group in a market setting, you must obey the laws of property rights. In other words, you cannot steal and you cannot conquer. True, market competition still leads to all kinds of dodgy behavior. (Wall Street comes to mind.) But compared to the ravenous predation of rulers like Genghis Kahn, capitalist tycoons are domesticated house cats. With the predators in check, Henrich argues that Western society kept the benefits of competition, but removed the most destructive elements.

Related to market norms is the WEIRD tendency to be ‘individualistic’. Henrich argues that this psychology arises from the needs of voluntary organization. When you break down kin bonds, people are ‘freed’ to associate with anyone they like. In a sense, this freedom is liberating. But it also leads to a self-centered worldview. It forces people to constantly broadcast their abilities in order to find friends and win gainful employment.

One of the paradoxes here is that Westerners adopted a more ‘individualistic’ psychology at the same time that their behavior become more ‘collectivist’. Urbanization is a prime example. Today, 9 million New Yorkers live and work in a dense urban jungle that is essentially a massive hive. And yet the majority of these people would probably claim to value autonomy and independence. How can this be? For his part, Henrich doesn’t see a contradiction. The dismantling of intensive kinship, he argues, meant people had to choose who to associate with. And that choice made people more individualistic, yet also more impersonally prosocial.

Another possibility worth exploring is that individualism is a kind of mind hack that simplifies the complex web of relationships that surround us. For example, when Karl Marx documented 19th-century capitalism in Britain, he complained that people focused on commodities, but forgot about the social relations that underpinned production. He called this stance ‘commodity fetishism’. Perhaps ‘individualism’ is a similar ‘fetish’: it causes people to take social relations and conceive of them as personal traits.

For instance, when I write my resume, I tell myself that I am listing ‘personal traits’. And yet the evidence that I actually provide is mostly relational. I tell you about the schools where I have studied, the organizations where I have worked, the institutions that have given me awards, the journals that have published my work, the groups who have listened to my presentations, and so on. In short, I am telling you about my past social relationships, yet I am convinced these are personal accomplishments. It’s worth researching if/how this individualistic stance makes large numbers of relationships easier to maintain.

Back to Henrich’s story about Western culture. He argues that after dismantling intensive kinship and developing a WEIRD psychology, Europeans began to ‘scale up’ using voluntary organization. To support his argument, Henrich documents the steady growth of merchant guilds, charter towns, universities, monastic orders and knowledge societies. As people aggregated in cities, they sought out like-minded individuals, leading to a network effect — a vast ‘collective brain’. Stoked by the fires of commerce, knowledge and innovation proliferated. The result, Henrich claims, is that Westerners became unprecedentedly rich.14

The death of ritualized power

As far as histories go, Henrich’s story about the rise of industrial capitalism is fairly standard. And it is based on well-known trends. Still, it leaves me with a feeling that something is missing.

Perhaps a good place to start is with Henrich’s own words. At the outset of his book, Henrich notes that people often misunderstand their own culture:

Institutions usually remain inscrutable to those operating within them — like water to fish. Because cultural evolution generally operates slowly, subtly, and outside conscious awareness, people rarely understand how or why their institutions work or even that they “do” anything. People’s explicit theories about their own institutions are generally post hoc and often wrong.

Let’s call this sentiment the ‘anthropological stance’. When studying a society, the anthropological stance means that you take what people say about their own culture with a grain of salt. You assume that people are like ‘fish’ who cannot see the institutional ‘water’ in which they swim.

So what is the water?

Well, a big part of it is ritualized power. The important thing about power is that when it is legitimized (via ritual), it becomes invisible to those who believe in the rituals. For example, if you asked a devout Catholic to describe the Pope, they might use words like ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’. What they would not say is ‘the Pope is a powerful ruler who use rituals to legitimize his authority’. Of course, that is exactly how a heretic (like me) would describe the Pope. But to a Catholic, the Pope’s power is hidden within a web of beliefs and rituals.

Back to Henrich. When he describes how societies scaled up using intensive kinship, he adopts the anthropological stance. He is clear that intensive kinship involved a large dose of ritualized power. For example, here is how he depicts the emergence of chiefdoms:

[B]oth anthropological and historical evidence suggest that the manipulation and accumulation of ritual powers and offices has been one of the main ways in which some clans have set themselves above others. … By providing a means to make and enforce community-level decisions, chiefdoms often have a substantial edge in competition with more egalitarian societies. … [They] often have enough command and control to unify large armies for military campaigns.

(power words highlighted)

For the moment, let’s forget about whether this description is correct. What’s clear is that this paragraph is not how people living in a chiefdom would describe their own society. (It seems far fetched that a chief would say: ‘I manipulate and accumulate ritual powers.’)

Now let’s switch gears and look at how Henrich describes the institutions of capitalism. Here is Henrich discussing the psychological effects of markets:

Well-functioning impersonal markets, in which strangers freely engage in competitive exchange, demand what I call market norms. Market norms establish the standards for judging oneself and others in impersonal transactions and lead to the internalization of motivations for trust, fairness, and cooperation with strangers and anonymous others.

(market words highlighted)

Again, let’s forget about whether this description is correct. Instead, let’s ask ourselves if this paragraph is how a Westerner might describe their own culture. You can judge for yourself, but my impression is that when asked to describe capitalism, many people will pontificate about markets, freedom, and competitive exchange.

So in these two paragraphs, we have a change in tone. Intensive kinship involves ‘ritualized power’, while modern institutions involve ‘competitive exchange’. I think this tone change is problematic, because it implies that in capitalism, ritualized power has disappeared. (It has not.) But before I explain further, let me convince you that I’m not cherry picking Henrich’s words.

Figure 7 analyzes the frequency of six different words in Henrich’s book. Each panel, shows the relative frequency of the given word, measured by chapter. The shaded regions highlight the major topic of the book in two different sections. When Henrich discusses intensive kinship, the words ‘command’, ‘ritual’, and ‘power’ (top row) spike in frequency. When Henrich moves on to discuss the ‘new institutions’ of Western society, these words become more rare. Instead, talk of ‘exchange’, ‘market’ and ‘trade’ (bottom row) becomes more frequent.

Figure 7: From ‘ritualized power’ to ‘market exchange’ — analyzing word frequency in Henrich’s book. This figure shows the frequency of six different words in Henrich’s book, broken down by their occurrence in each chapter. The words in the top row (‘command’, ‘ritual’ and ‘power’) are used most frequently in the chapters where Henrich discusses intensive kinship. The words in the bottom row (‘exchange’, ‘market’, and ‘trade’) are used most frequently in the chapters where Henrich describes the new institutions of Western society.

Clearly, Henrich’s language changes as he moves from discussing intensive kinship to the institutions of modern capitalism. Is this switch justified? In part, yes. It would be foolish to discuss the evolution of capitalism without describing the spread of commerce. But the problem is that by omission, Henrich implies that the rise of markets did away with ritualized power. I think that is misleading.

Inscrutable institutions

When we study capitalism, it is difficult to adopt the anthropological stance, because we are the ‘fish’ who are unable to see the institutional ‘water’. Still, there are some tricks that can help us understand the ritualized power that surrounds us. The simplest option is to look for contradictions between what people say and what they do.

Let’s use neoclassical economists as an example. Economists spend their days theorizing the efficacy of the ‘free market’. And yet these same economists have tenured positions in large universities that are funded by still larger governments. In other words, economists’ working lives have almost nothing to do with the market. The discrepancy between language and action is severe.

When you find this type of contradiction, it’s a sure bet that you’ve found a ritual. In fact, future anthropologists might claim that economist use the idea of markets to ‘manipulate and accumulate ritual powers’. This language, by the way, is how Henrich described the accumulation of chiefly power. I think it remains appropriate for describing capitalism.

Of course, you might disagree. And so what we really need to do is understand if concentrated power has actually gone away. Market ideology suggests that it has. The empirical evidence suggests that it has not.

To look at the evidence, consider the example of the United States. Today, the US is viewed as the quintessential free-market society. US citizens can buy what they want, work where they want, and live where they want. Two hundred years ago, however, things were different. At the time, the US South was the quintessential slave state, governed by ritualized, racist power. We all know what happened. Americans fought a civil war that ended slavery, setting African Americans on a century-long path to greater equality. Looking at US history, it seems to fit with Henrich’s story about the spread of voluntary organization. However, just because group membership is voluntary does not mean that ritualized power goes away.

Here’s an example. Three years ago, I voluntarily joined Twitter. And yet a few weeks ago, Elon Musk bought Twitter, and so gained the power to censor me. How did he do it? By ‘manipulating and accumulating ritual powers’. (How else do you describe the mysteries of Musk’s debt financing?)

Speaking of Elon Musk, his Twitter purchase was possible because of his Tesla shares, which are wildly valuable. These shares are themselves a form of ritualized power, giving Musk control over the 100,000 people who work for Tesla. Looking at Musk’s power over Tesla employees, we can say that it is less despotic than the power of a slave owner. And yet US slave owners rarely owned more than 1000 slaves. So the paradox is that in terms of the number of people he commands, Elon Musk is likely more powerful than any US slave owner ever was.

Now, Tesla is but one example of a giant corporation. There are many others. In fact, there are so many big corporations, that you can convincingly argue that the modern United States is far more hierarchical than the Antebellum South.

Figure 8 makes the case. Here I have contrasted the size distribution of modern US business firms with the size distribution of slave estates in the Antebellum South. What’s important is that as we move from left to right, the blue line (business firms) extends far beyond the red line (slave estates). This difference indicates that modern corporations grow orders of magnitude larger than Antebellum slave estates.

Figure 8: Scaling down despotism, scaling up organization size. This figure compares the size distribution of slave estates in the Antebellum US South to the size distribution of modern US business firms. The horizontal axis shows the number of members in the organization, plotted on a log scale. The vertical axis shows the relative abundance of the given-sized organization. Slave estates (red line) were overwhelmingly small, with few exceeding 1000 slaves. Today, US business firms (blue line) grow far larger, with many exceeding 10,000 members. [Sources and methods]

Now, you might counter that US corporations are not actually hierarchies. However, if you’ve ever worked in a big company, you know that it has a chain of command. But aside from worldly experience, we can connect the growing size of corporations to other indicators of hierarchy, such as the relative number of managers. You might also protest that the US is somehow exceptional. Perhaps in other countries, firms got smaller? Again, the evidence suggests not. Across all countries, it seems that industrialization tends to bring larger firms and larger governments. (For more details about this evidence, see ‘Energy and institution size’ and ‘Economic development and the death of the free market’.)

For the last half decade, I’ve been puzzling over this evidence, trying to understand how to make it fit with the standard picture from economics. Here are my conclusions:

  1. Despite what economists say, societies always scale up using hierarchy;
  2. The growth of hierarchy comes with cultural tools that ritualize and legitimize the centralization of power (economists are part of this cultural package);
  3. Hierarchy is a double-edged sword. It can organize large numbers of people, yet it leads to despotism.

So where do markets fit into these conclusions? I think markets do two things. First, they turn power into a quantitative ritual. Instead of appealing to divine right, capitalist rulers appeal to the power of property rights, which can then be quantified (via stock prices) and bought and sold. This is not my own insight. It is the central thesis of Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler’s theory of ‘capital as power’.

Second, I think that the norms, rules, and laws that come with markets act to make power less despotic. For example, the rule of law puts limits on corporate power. Jeff Bezos might want to sentence a petulant Amazon employee to be hanged, drawn and quartered. But the law says he cannot. The law also gives employees the right to leave a company if they wish. Granted, doing so may mean loss of income. Still, the effect is to limit despotism. If corporate rulers treat their subordinates badly, they risk loosing them. The same is not true in a slave estate, or a kin-based institution. And so corporate hierarchies avoid the despotism that plagues intensive kinships.

What is not obvious (and what I am still trying to grapple with) is that by lessening despotism, market institutions actually promoted the growth of hierarchy. And yet that seems to be exactly what happened.

Back to Henrich. Readers of The WEIRDest People will be left with the impression that capitalist societies abandoned ritualized power as an organizing principle. I think that’s a flawed conclusion that says more about capitalist ideology than it does about actual behavior. My view is that WEIRD people continue to appeal to ritualized power, but are largely unaware that they do so.

New pieces in the puzzle

Omissions aside, Henrich’s book is a major contribution to the study of cultural evolution. His focus on the relation between intensive kinship and psychology is particularly important because it provides fresh insight into the debate over the emergence of Western culture. In the long term, my guess is that Henrich’s research will revolutionize our understanding of cultural evolution.

For example, the relation between psychology and institutions helps to explain the inertia of culture. If people were ‘free’ to think about the world anyway they liked, then culture could not possibly last. (In a sense, culture would not exist, since it requires that behavior have some degree of uniformity.) But if culture imprints on individuals — directing their thought patterns and behavior — then it has staying power.15

The task that Henrich sets for himself is to understand how changes in psychology interrelate to changes in culture. His big idea (which he backs with abundant evidence) is that many of the tenets of Western thinking — things like liberalism, individualism, universalism, and reason — were germinating long before the Enlightenment. The seeds were planted, he argues, a thousand years earlier as the Catholic Church began to break up intensive kinship.

This idea is bound to be controversial and surely needs more research. But I think the best way to characterize Henrich’s book is as a new piece in the puzzle. Like the discovery of a new fossil bed, Henrich provides a rich trove of evidence that demands a consilient explanation.

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Sources and methods

Data for the size distribution of slave estates (Figure 8) is from Lee Soltow’s book Men and wealth in the United States, 1850-1870. You can peruse the data at

Data for the size distribution of US firms is from a variety of sources, discussed in my post ‘Institution Size as a Window into Cultural Evolution’.


  1. Aristotle has become somewhat infamous for caring more about ideas than evidence. For example, Aristotle believed that men have more teeth than women. (They don’t.) Lambasting Aristotle, Bertrand Russell writes: “although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives’ mouths.”↩
  2. It seems that when you learn to read, you co-opt the left side of your brain for interpreting symbols, pushing facial recognition to the right side. For many years, scientists assumed that this was ‘natural’ — that all humans recognized faces using the brain’s right hemisphere. It turns out that this pattern is unique to people who are literate. Illiterate populations tend to interpret faces using both sides of the brain. And with more ‘brain power’ devoted to the task, illiterate people are better at facial recognition.↩
  3. The most common tool for avoiding incest seems to be sexual dispersal. When an animal matures, one (or both) of the sexes moves to new territory. Because most animals use dispersal, they do not evolve more complicated forms of incest avoidance (such as kin detection). As a result, many species will mate with close relatives when given the chance in captivity.↩
  4. The Habsburgs are perhaps the most notorious example of royal inbreeding. From 1450 to 1750, the family became so inbred that it suffered from excessive child mortality and developed a number of deformities, including the famous Habsburg jaw.↩
  5. The anthropologist Christopher Boehm argued that hunter gathers maintain equality by practicing ‘reverse dominance’: the weak enforce egalitarianism by ganging up on would-be strongmen. A criticism of Boehm’s claim is that some foraging societies (like those in the Pacific Northwest) organized in despotic hierarchies. This evidence is then taken as a refutation of the agriculture = hierarchy hypothesis.

    I think this controversy can be resolved by taking the focus away from agriculture and instead putting it on energy. My own research suggests that it is the scale of energy consumption (not the specific way that this energy is harvest) that predicts hierarchy. So what makes agriculture important is that it generally comes with the ability to harvest more energy. But that is not always true. In the case of Pacific foragers, they tapped into the concentrated energy of local salmon runs. In other words, their energy consumption was probably greater than that of most hunter gatherers. And so they formed larger hierarchies.↩

  6. In his book Darwin’s Cathedral, David Sloan Wilson discusses the example of the Nuer people of present-day Sudan, who spread at the expense of the neighboring Dinka. The difference between the two groups seems to have been mostly cultural. Similarly, Henrich highlights the example of Ilahita, an agrarian community in the Sepik region of New Guinea. Despite having similar technology as its neighbors, Ilahita was far larger than neighboring village. Why? Again, because of culture. Both the Nuer and the Ilahita had started to organize using what Henrich calls ‘intensive kinship’.↩
  7. Henrich notes that in many societies, kin bias is considered ‘family loyalty’. In WEIRD societies, however, it is called ‘nepotism’ — a word that has a negative connotation. Interestingly, the word ‘nepotism’ traces to the Catholic Church. It derives from the Latin nepotem, meaning ‘nephew’, and describes the practice of granting privileges to a pope’s ‘nephew’, which was a euphemism for his natural son.↩
  8. Interestingly, Henrich cites experimental evidence to back up the claim that polygyny is bad for cooperation. A 2009 study by Mehta, Wuehrmann, and Josephs tested how testosterone levels affected performance during a competition. In one experiment, Mehta asked people to beat their partner’s score on a standardized test. In another experiment, pairs of people were asked to combine their scores to beat other groups. It seems that individuals with high testosterone did better when competing against their partner. In contrast, people with low testosterone faired better when competing as a group. In other words, testosterone heightens competition within groups — the opposite of what you need to form a cohesive society. How does this evidence relate to polygyny? Well, polygyny leads to more bachelors, and bachelors tend to have high testosterone. And so do polygynous men.↩
  9. Here’s how Genghis Khan framed his life goals:

    The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.

    While rulers frequently embellish, Khan seems to have been telling the truth.↩

  10. In the ocean, oxygen dissolves at around 10 parts per million. In the air, oxygen exists at about 200,000 parts per million. So per particle, air contains about 20,000 times more oxygen. The atmosphere, however, is about 100 times less dense than the ocean. So per unit of volume, air has about 20 times more oxygen. Still, that’s a considerable advantage for air-breathing animals like whales.↩
  11. Origin stories tend to depend on how we understand the present. Hence, debates about the origins of capitalism turn largely on different theories of present-day capitalism.

    Mainstream economists tend to see capitalism as a market system, and so (when they bother to study history) trace the development of monetary exchange. Marxists (like Robert Brenner) focus on the exploitation of workers, and so study the spread of wage labor. Max Weber thought capitalism was characterized by a ritualization of work, and so traced its origin to the Protestant Reformation. World-systems theorists like Immanuel Wallerstein and Andre Gunder Frank focus on core-periphery dynamics, and so study the history of international trade. More recently, Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler see capitalism as a ‘mode of power’, and trace its origins to the 12th-century development of the European ‘bourg’.

    While dates vary, most of these approaches trace the seeds of capitalism back to the late Middle Ages. Henrich, in contrast, starts much earlier because he is focused on kinship. Henrich argues that by the late Middle Ages, Western Europe had already dismantled most of its kin-based institutions. Unlike in other clan-based societies, polygyny was becoming rare in Western Europe (although the male aristocracy still hoarded wives). Perhaps more importantly, sons were not bound to reside in their father’s ‘house’, as was the norm in patriarchal clans. Instead, male peasants could marry and take up new residence away from their fathers (and in-laws). This break-up of intensive kinship, Henrich proposes, began in the fourth century, and took about a thousand years to complete. It did not guarantee the emergence of capitalism, but laid the preconditions for non-kin organization.↩

  12. Naturally, one wonders if the Church knew what it was doing when it started its ‘marriage and family program’. The answer seems to be both yes and no. Over time, the Church clearly figured out that it benefited from breaking up clans. Catholic priests, Henrich notes, were able to convince many rich patriarchs to donate some (or all) of their estate to the Church— a behavior that would have been unthinkable had these patriarchs been focused solely on maintaining their lineage. So yes, the Church understood that it benefited from killing off intensive kinship.

    However, the Church likely had no idea that it was rewriting European culture at large. In that sense, the Church’s ‘marriage and family program’ is similar to the peacock’s ‘big shiny tail program’. Like the Church, peacocks unwittingly played a game of evolution. For unknown reasons, female peacocks developed a preference for males with big shiny tails. That led males to evolve tails that were even bigger and shinier. None of the animals had any idea what they were doing. And yet evolution did its work anyway, culminating in the male peacock’s preposterously large tail. The Church’s incest obsession was probably similar. Like most human groups, the Church was oblivious to the long-term effects of its own culture.↩

  13. Fun fact: changing norms about fairness are evident in the Bible. In the Old Testament, which is famous for its tribal mentality, the ‘golden rule’ applies only to kin:

    You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself.

    (Leviticus 19:18)

    When Mathew restated the golden rule in the (less tribal) New Testament, he dropped the kin bias:

    Therefore whatever you desire for men to do to you, you shall also do to them; for this is the law and the prophets.

    (Mathew 7:12)


  14. You’ll note that Henrich’s story of the rise of the West doesn’t highlight imperialism. While he acknowledges the “very real and pervasive horrors of slavery, racism, plunder, and genocide”, Europe’s expansionism doesn’t feature in his main story. That’s a bit odd, given that the theory of cultural evolution focuses on competition between groups. It’s a bit like describing the changes that happened in imperial Rome without mentioning that they coincided (and likely depended on) Rome’s conquest of Europe and North Africa.↩
  15. If, like me, you value ‘free thinking’, then the idea that culture restricts our thinking is a bitter pill to swallow. I’d like to believe that regardless of the time or place I was born, I’d have developed the same scientific worldview. But Henrich has convinced me that this is an illusion. Scientific thinking, he argues, is a cultural tool. And like all tools, it has been slowly improved over time.

    In particular, science provides a prescription for when and how you should not defer to authority. This is important, because deference to authority is one of the main ways that culture is passed on. And that is often good. It would be disastrous, for example, if children had to learn by experiment that crossing highways was deadly. It’s far safer to be told of the danger — to accept an argument from authority.

    The problem with deference to authority, however, is that it provides no way to distinguish between knowledge that is good, useless, or bad. For example, a medicinal recipe might contain some ingredients that are helpful and others that do nothing. And perhaps it comes wrapped in a elaborate ritual that involves human sacrifice. Deference to authority passes down the whole package to future generations. Science, in contrast, gives people the tools for deconstructing the package and separating the good from the useless and bad.

    Of course, philosophers of science have long known that science strives to distinguish fact from fiction. But few philosophers have thought to connect scientific thinking to kinship structure. But Henrich does just that. Cultures built on intensive kinship, Henrich argues, tend to put more value on deference to authority and devotion to the clan. That makes the scientific worldview more difficult.↩

Further reading

Fix, B. (2019). An evolutionary theory of resource distribution. Real-World Economics Review, (90), 65–97.

Fix, B. (2021). Economic development and the death of the free market. Evolutionary and Institutional Economics Review, 1–46.

Henrich, J. (2020). The WEIRDest people in the world: How the West became psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous. Penguin UK.

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33(2-3), 61–83.

Karmin, M., Saag, L., Vicente, M., Sayres, M. A. W., Järve, M., Talas, U. G., … others. (2015). A recent bottleneck of Y chromosome diversity coincides with a global change in culture. Genome Research, 25(4), 459–466.

Nitzan, J., & Bichler, S. (2009). Capital as power: A study of order and creorder. New York: Routledge.

Schulz, J. F., Bahrami-Rad, D., Beauchamp, J. P., & Henrich, J. (2019). The church, intensive kinship, and global psychological variation. Science, 366(6466).

Turchin, P. (2016). Ultrasociety: How 10,000 years of war made humans the greatest cooperators on Earth. Chaplin, Connecticut: Beresta Books.

Wilson, D. S. (2010). Darwin’s cathedral: Evolution, religion, and the nature of society. University of Chicago Press.

The post Weird Consilience: A Review of Joseph Henrich’s ‘The WEIRDest People in the World’ appeared first on Economics from the Top Down.

Book Review: Citizenship, Democracy, and Belonging in Suburban Britain: Making the Local by David Jeevendrampillai

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 19/05/2022 - 8:50pm in


book review

In Citizenship, Democracy, and Belonging in Suburban Britain: Making the Local – available open access from UCL Press – David Jeevendrampillai explores how inclusiveness and citizen participation can create resilient and welcoming communities, drawing on his ethnographic study of the London suburb of Surbiton. This book will benefit those working in any capacity with the built environment and its citizens, including urbanists and planners, writes Jade Orr.

Citizenship, Democracy, and Belonging in Suburban Britain: Making the Local. David Jeevendrampillai. UCL Press. 2021.

Citizenship, Democracy and Belonging in Suburban Britain coverAt a time of increasing social isolation and turmoil, David Jeevendrampillai’s Citizenship, Democracy, and Belonging in Suburban Britain hits close to home and feels like a necessary endeavour as it enlightens readers to the ways in which inclusiveness and citizen participation could create resilient and welcoming communities in unexpected ways.

A resilient community can be defined as an adaptable community that is able to resist and recover from adverse social conditions or scenarios, utilising available resources and community networks. While often thought of in relation to environmental challenges, community resilience also applies to social and economic threats brought about by unchecked development, gentrification and neighbourhood decline.

Throughout his book, Jeevendrampillai engages with two social projects to investigate what it means to be an active citizen and how this relates to notions of inclusivity, democracy and belonging. An active citizen, in the view of Jeevendrampillai, is one that engages meaningfully with their community, whether through participation in local events, political activism or community engagement, forming the ties necessary to create a resilient community. He explores these ideas further by undertaking a long-term ethnographic study of the London suburb of Surbiton.

The first project Jeevendrampillai participated in as their hired anthropologist was the Adaptable Suburbs Project (ASP), spearheaded by the School of Architecture at University College London. The ASP aimed to evaluate the dynamics of suburbs, which are often overlooked in favour of their urban counterparts, to determine what they had to offer in terms of their long-term adaptability and resilience. To do this, the ASP examined the ways that social and economic activity are affected by and interact with social and physical change over time. By studying several suburbs, including Surbiton, the ASP sought to better understand the inner workings of these environments and their social value. The ASP aimed to develop targeted policy suggestions designed to improve conditions in London suburbs and elevate their status as their own entities rather than just bedroom communities to larger cities.

Through Jeevendrampillai’s work with the ASP, he became deeply entrenched in a second project run by community activists from Surbiton, named the ‘Seethingers’ and representing a group of locally engaged citizens, as he undertook his ethnographic study of Surbiton alongside them. The Seethingers were mostly white, middle- to upper-class residents, who aimed to form an inclusive, resilient community that could resist the neoliberal forces of development and social isolation creeping into their suburban haven. The Seethingers, through their communal organisation, were responding to what they perceived to be increasing social seclusion, the devaluation of Surbiton to merely a peripheral commuter town and the threats of rampant development emanating from the city. More broadly, the Seethingers were responding to the fear of a loss of community.

Surbiton station

Image Credit: ‘Surbiton Railway Station, Surbiton, UK’ by Ok2010 licensed under CC BY SA 3.0

Representative of these broader threats and the Seethingers’ response, Jeevendrampillai highlights a specific instance in which the group had to confront local government in order to mount a campaign to save a historic site within Surbiton. The site housed historic waterworks and reservoirs that had great significance both as a source of community pride and also as the site where Dr John Snow was able to discover the cause of cholera and put an end to the outbreak in the nineteenth century. This landmark was being threatened by a proposal to build a development of luxury apartments that the Seethingers thought would not only destroy this important historic site, but also fundamentally change the character of Surbiton.

With this impending threat to Surbiton in mind, Jeevendrampillai focused on the informal approach the Seethingers took to building an inclusive, resilient community in a suburban environment in contrast to the ASP’s academic, data-based approach.

Even though the ASP and the Seethingers were both seeking answers to the question of what characteristics and underlying forces impacted the resilience and adaptability of the suburban community, they took very different approaches. As the ASP was a university group comprised of a team of academic researchers, they focused more on formulaic analysis that drew on theoretical frameworks and methodologies adopted from a variety of disciplines, including architecture, anthropology, history and geography, in order to form a dataset. This dataset allowed them to interpret the spatial relations of social and economic factors within suburbs in order to make a better, stronger community.

By contrast, the Seethingers adopted a more informal approach to community and frequently used playful stories and what they referred to as ‘stupid events’ to engender a sense of inclusion and egalitarianism among their group members. While the ASP dealt with complex, calculable data, the Seethingers purposefully committed to not focusing on ‘true fact’; rather, they undertook play in order to prevent exclusion within the group based on discrepancies in formal knowledge.

Jeevendrampillai provides insight into the ways in which, although at times silly, the Seethingers focused on what he calls ‘horizontal citizenship’ that created a more equitable community. One way they sought to do this was by participating in what they proclaimed to be ‘stupid events’ which they used to unify their group and interact with the surrounding community. These ranged from a ‘Freshwater Sardine Festival’ to community craft days in preparation for parades celebrating characters from local lore. Though the Seethingers described the ‘stupid events’ as simply a way to bring their group together and engage in playful interactions, these worked to challenge traditional, isolating perceptions of suburban life and project their ideal version of suburbia that was built on trust, community and inclusion.

By expounding upon the differences between the approaches of the ASP and the Seethingers, the book enlightens readers to both the strengths and weaknesses of each. Coming back to the threat of the luxury development that would have overtaken the Seethingers’ beloved historic site in Surbiton, Jeevendrampillai highlights the successes of the Seethingers’ strategy for creating a resilient community. Because of their use of play and ‘stupid events’, the Seethingers formed a strong bond among the group, learning each other’s strengths and weaknesses and what they each had to contribute to the campaign to save the site. Additionally, their events within the community helped cultivate individual feelings of meaningful connection to Surbiton within the suburban locale.

In the end, the Seethingers were triumphant in their campaign against the luxury development. While they were working on a distinctly local scale, their strategies of community-building have lessons of best practice for other communities outside of Surbiton. While the ASP’s objectivity and expertise allowed them to work on a broader scale, helping to shape future policy for urban development, their findings supported the Seethingers’ belief that the suburb is a place of importance for the community and that it is necessary to see the suburb as an entity in its own right rather than just a commuter town serving the larger city.

The approaches of the Seethingers and the ASP both inform different ways necessary for thinking about community and inclusion. While the fine-detailed analytical approach of the ASP provided opportunities for scalability and objectivity in influencing larger urban development policy, it was the more nuanced, community-based approach of the Seethingers that helped uncover some of the significant social value laden in the social fabric of the suburbs.

Each way of knowing and understanding that Jeevendrampillai brings to light enables new ways of recognising and questioning the dynamics at play in the creation of a successful community. These findings will benefit those working in any capacity with the built environment or its citizens. This book will be useful for a multiplicity of practitioners working across disciplines, including urbanists, planners and anyone engaging with what it takes to shape a resilient community.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science.


Book Review: Defiant Geographies: Race and Urban Space in 1920s Rio de Janeiro by Lorraine Leu

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 18/05/2022 - 10:10pm in

In Defiant Geographies: Race and Urban Space in 1920s Rio de JaneiroLorraine Leu explores how the urban reform initiatives of 1920s Rio de Janeiro were underpinned by racial displacement and how black and poor white immigrant communities sought to defiantly resist these processes. This is a welcome and accessible contribution to Brazil’s anti-racist urban theory and will be a fundamental read for anyone interested in race, urban space, urban renewal and displacement, writes Laura Santos Granja.

Defiant Geographies: Race and Urban Space in 1920s Rio de Janeiro. Lorraine Leu. University of Pittsburgh Press. 2020.

Book cover of Defiant GeographiesAfter the abolition of slavery, 60 per cent of Brazil’s population was black. Over 70 per cent of black Brazilians lived in self-constructed, mostly informal housing by the 21st century. Racial segregation in Brazil occurred through urban reform initiatives and not through explicit segregation laws. The Brazilian state’s vision of modernisation from the early twentieth century onwards did not include black urban spaces. Instead it supported European immigration, urban renewal projects that implemented a European-inspired modern ideology and a national construction of the ‘Brazilian race’ that worked to invisibilise the black population.

Lorraine Leu’s book, Defiant Geographies: Race and Urban Space in 1920s Rio de Janeiro, is about how ‘race makes space’ (5) in a country where the culture of racial intermix, racial harmony, racial democracy and colour blindness has prevailed over decades despite evident structural racism and racial segregation.

The book focuses its narrative on the city of Rio de Janeiro during the 1920s. Rio de Janeiro was Brazil’s capital at the time, and the perception of it being a black city was incompatible with the elite’s urban renewal projects. Leu describes the modernisation processes in Rio in the 1920s, with Mayor Carlos Sampaio in power. The exponent of the modernisation process was the Centenary Exposition, an international mega-event in Rio that aimed to showcase Brazil’s modernity. The exposition was designed to reflect the white bodies and spaces that represented modern conceptions of universal freedom, justice, legality and equality. As a result, the site chosen to host the exposition, the Castelo neighbourhood, had its black and poor white immigrant population displaced.

Image Credit: Crop of ‘Cartaz da Exposição Nacional de 1922’ licensed by Arquivo Nacional do Brasil under Public Domain 

Urban renewal projects in Rio aimed to change urban geography to invisibilise, displace and place the black population in informality. The poor white immigrants who occupied the same spaces as the black population were often ‘blackened’ and also targeted in urban renewal projects. Leu describes the spaces occupied by those who fought for their existence, challenged domination, marked their presence and understood the city through a decolonising spatial logic. These are the spaces that Leu calls ‘defiant geographies’.

Leu examines the naturalisation of whiteness in Rio, establishing the lost connection between race and urban space and historically describing the elite’s strategies to justify the removal of raced bodies in the name of progress and order. Leu argues that city officials justified the demolition of Castelo’s neighbourhood due to public health and sanitation concerns. However, the real concerns were modernisation, beautification, productivity and real estate speculation due to Castelo’s central location. The experience of the Castelo neighbourhood in 1922 was not an isolated case in Rio. Nearly a century later, Vila Autódromo had a similar fate. Leu argues that these are not spaces of exception: ‘they were already produced as illegal and perceived as rightful victims of the deterritorialization and violence meted out by private/public consortia’ (13).

Defiant Geographies is divided into four chapters explaining different critical aspects of how race makes urban space. Although all aspects intersect, each chapter focuses on one of the following: discourse; visuality; spatial practices; and built or material form. Leu shows how these aspects work to naturalise race and space throughout the book and explores how subjects defy this process. To do so, Leu portrays scenes from 1920s Rio through different cultural texts, images, characters and Brazilian novels that vividly describe places and people, giving the reader an idea of Rio’s culture at the time.

The first chapter starts with a description of a scene involving three individuals. Two workers from the centenary reform project, José Vieira, an Afro-descendant, and Cícero Pereira, northeastern from the interior, found the dead body of Manuel Jesus Gomes, a homeless Spanish immigrant. The body was buried while Gomes slept on the demolition site for Pereira Passos’s urban reform project. Rio de Janeiro’s Mayor Passos aimed to create a European-style boulevard (Avenida Rio Branco) between 1903 and 1906, the first urban renewal project in Rio’s city centre.

The description of this case puts us in the moment of the urban reforms and connects the dots with Leu’s previous argument on how race and ethnicity intersect with urbanisation. A white immigrant displaced from his home ended up homeless at a moment when homelessness was being criminalised by the Penal Code of 1890. The Penal Code affected Afro-descendants disproportionately, but poor white immigrants that coexisted with the black population in difficult and impoverished conditions, or those who represented a threat to the government with their militancy and discourses of social revolution, could be ‘blackened’ and have a similar fate. ‘By 1920, immigrants constituted 20.65 percent of the population of the capital, and city officials saw them alternately as agents of and impediments to the modern’ (58). However, Afro-descendants remained the majority in the city’s poorest neighbourhoods and had no possibility of working their way out or up. In her book, Leu shifts the analysis of informal areas in Rio from a class to a racial lens. She argues that race should be a structural principle to analyse space and sociocultural relations in Rio.

The racialised production of space tried to exclude black bodies from the city centre, but not without resistance. Throughout Chapter Three, Leu describes her ‘defiant geographies’ or geographies of resistance. According to Leu, carnival associations, street vendors and capoeira fighters were the main actors in occupying the streets and local area and showcased Afro-descendants’ culture as an exercise of power, courage and strength.

One specific example mentioned in the text is the carnival of 1922, when one of the floats criticised the plans to demolish the Castelo neighbourhood, titling their float ‘Fico’ (‘I’m staying’). These groups conferred value to these spaces and made their own collective geographical knowledge and identifications. Although the transformation of these spaces into battlegrounds was temporary, it produced collective alternative geographies. It empowered Castelo’s residents to participate in the city’s political scene, notably through protests.

Despite all the efforts to demolish the Castelo neighbourhood hillside, city officials and developers could not flatten all of the neighbourhood in time for the Centenary Exposition. The presence of part of the hill close to the exposition somewhat disrupted the aimed visual image of modernity, suggesting an exposition of Brazil’s colonial past for visitors. The state, the municipality, the elites and developers failed in their idealisation of a place for real estate speculation. The lack of investors’ interest did not bring the expected revenue for the city and left Rio in a housing crisis. The Centenary Exposition pavilion was demolished in 1978, an act that represents the reform’s failure as an urban renewal project. As Leu argues, it signifies ‘what Beatriz Jaguaribe calls “the fragility of former utopian projections” that while positing themselves as new, inevitably presage their own demise’ (153).

Overall, Defiant Geographies is a welcome and accessible contribution to Brazil’s anti-racist urban theory. Leu shines a light on the importance of race in urban spaces, defying class theories that undermine structural racism in the formation of current geographies of exclusion and segregation. The well-detailed case study of Castelo’s neighbourhood and the Centenary Exposition is a suitable choice for discussion since the way Brazilian elites imagined the nation and the way the black population was put aside in the 1920s still reverberate in today’s society and space. For this reason, Defiant Geographies is a fundamental read for anyone interested in race and urban space as well as urban renewal projects and displacement.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Image Credit: Crop of ‘Vista de Botafogo’ licensed by Arquivo Nacional do Brasil under Public Domain 


Book Review: Narrative Expansions: Interpreting Decolonisation in Academic Libraries edited by Jess Crilly and Regina Everitt

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 13/05/2022 - 8:41pm in


book review

In Narrative Expansions: Interpreting Decolonisation in Academic Libraries, editors Jess Crilly and Regina Everitt bring together contributors to explore the variety of creative initiatives undertaken by academic libraries and archives to open their doors to underrepresented voices. This timely collection is a brilliant effort to unite the thinking behind the movements to decolonise the curriculum, writes Amy Lewontin

If you are interested in Narrative Expansions, you can also read editor Jess Crilly’s LSE RB blog post introducing the collection as well as a piece by LSE Library’s Kevin Wilson drawing on his contribution to the volume

Narrative Expansions: Interpreting Decolonisation in Academic Libraries. Jess Crilly and Regina Everitt (eds). Facet Publishing. 2022.

A new and timely collection, Narrative Expansions: Interpreting Decolonisation in Academic Libraries shifts the emphasis of decolonising the university to a hands-on view of the variety of creative initiatives undertaken by academic libraries to open their doors to underrepresented voices. Jess Crilly and Regina Everitt, both library managers in the UK with experience overseeing larger research libraries as well as archives, edit and introduce the fifteen essays by librarians and archivists from around the globe.

Early in the book, in a conversation on decolonisation and activism that the editors have with the National Union of Students’s Vice President, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, she mentions the library’s role on campus. As Gyebi-Ababio explains, ‘dismantling the academic canon and expanding and transforming the library as we know it is a part of the decolonisation process that can produce immediate change and engage people for longer-term change. The library is a place of discovery, of investigation.’

This role of the library as a place of discovery and an active force for positive change for students and university staff is clearly demonstrated throughout the essays in Narrative Expansions. This book should be a first port of call for academic librarians and faculty across university departments who seek to support their institution’s wider efforts at embedding anti-racism within the curriculum, as well for those working to achieve more diversity and inclusion in the scholarly material provided for their academic community. Contributors to Narrative Expansions come from a wide geographic and institutional cross-section of academic environments, yet all share a common purpose: to work with others across their universities to examine a colonial and mainly Eurocentric past and forge solutions unique to their institutions.

Image Credit: Pixabay CCO

Narrative Expansions is divided into two quite distinct sections. In the first, ‘Contexts and Experiences’,  contributing authors give the reader a grounding in the current political environment at their respective universities and where the library fits into the larger academic research context. The second section of the book, ‘In Practice’, encompasses many more chapters. Here, the contributing authors take a practical approach and explain their efforts to apply the theory locally. This second section has much to offer for those seeking ideas for their own initial efforts.

In the case of 21st-century academic libraries and archives, this means an examination of what has been and currently is available to library users: namely, books and journals as well as archival materials on both physical and now digital shelves. In their descriptions of what is presently on offer at academic libraries, many of the contributing authors discuss the Indigenous voices that have been missing from libraries and their plans to rectify those gaps.

In pinpointing whose voices are missing and unique approaches to expanding and enriching scholarly offerings by respecting and encouraging those missing voices, this collection is rather unique in the context of library literature. Marilyn Clark, Director of Library Services at Goldsmiths, University of London, describes the work that library staff undertook with students and faculty ‘to identify the excluded voices and lived experiences, and to highlight Global South scholars missing from curriculum reading lists’. This project, the Liberatemydegree book collection, was one way of addressing a serious lack of collection diversity. It was a collective approach that contributed to a change in the direction of what Goldsmiths Library purchased and many of the books found their way onto curriculum reading lists soon after being acquired.

Narrative Expansions is not limited to an examination of the whiteness of scholarly research collections. Several essays examine increasing student diversity at their universities and point out the serious need to improve diversity and career progression within the library and archival profession. Crilly and Everitt clearly explain the larger aim of the volume in their introduction: ‘The work of decolonising the library is about understanding how the past has informed the present, but must also be about envisaging a better future, even if how to achieve it isn’t always clear’ (28).

What is most valuable about reading the essays is that they enable readers to gain an understanding of how each institution took its own approach, generally a step forward; yet the authors explain that their work is part of a continuous process, not yet finished, but useful for wider discussion and local sharing of ideas. Ludi Price, in her essay on efforts to decolonise the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) Library, explains what this means for her institution and I think for many others: ‘decolonisation is a dynamic process, and as the group navigates, and critically reflects upon, its practice, these goals may be subject to modification. None of us claims to be expert in what it means to decolonise; but we are dedicated to learning what it means through an ongoing journey, both within and without our home institution’ (282).

Narrative Expansions takes the reader into many areas of the library, including cataloguing, classification and automation, to consider how and why there may be underrepresented voices.  Several essays, including the contribution from Clark on Goldsmiths Library, briefly explore the idea that commercially purchased library automation systems as well as traditional library classification schemes have racial biases built into them. Other authors within the library field have recently explored the biases of automated library systems: for example, Masked by Trust by Matthew Reidsma, and perhaps the better known recent work Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Umoja Noble, who mentions ArtStor, a library resource for searching millions of digital images. Noble refers in her book to searching for ‘black history’ in ArtStor and finding the results returned were European and white American artists  (Algorithms of Oppression, 146). In Kevin Wilson’s illuminating essay on decolonising the collection at LSE, he refers to the firing of Google researcher, Timnit Gebru, in December 2020, ‘for co-authoring a paper on the ethics of artificial intelligence and whether it reinforces gender bias and offensive language’ (303).

While the essays in Narrative Expansions take on traditional aspects of the library, with cataloguing and collection development quite thoroughly covered, there are some areas that a future volume might explore. Several authors refer to the control that larger publishers exert over who is published, and how this can diminish and marginalise voices that should be heard. Wilson mentions that the majority of university library budgets is now going to the largest publishers, who are monopolistic in practice (289).

What is left unsaid in the various essays is that libraries can take an activist approach to reach out directly to publishers. Also unmentioned in the book is how much money is now spent with these same monopolistic publishers, buying access to electronic research tools for a multiplicity of academic purposes. Many of these electronic tools lack a way to search for diverse voices. My colleagues at Snell Library at Northeastern University in Boston, MA, designed an assignment for students to research and profile engineers with diverse backgrounds so that students could ‘see themselves’ in STEM fields. They discovered challenges across the biographical databases to which we subscribe: minimal representation, limited usability and very few profiles of BIPOC and women engineers. As a library group, we reached out to many of the larger publishers of the research tools and had several constructive dialogues with editors, as we suggested ways to improve findability in the tools that we subscribe to.

Narrative Expansions, with its international perspective that includes authors from Africa, the US and Indigenous Métis librarians from Canada among others, is a brilliant effort to unite the thinking behind the movements to decolonise the curriculum. It illustrates the dynamic and continuous efforts that academic libraries and archives are undertaking worldwide to interpret decolonisation for their own situations and contexts.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science.