Interview with Theodoros Rakopoulos, Postdoctoral Fellow and Author of “Solidarity: the egalitarian tensions of a bridge-concept” in the May issue of Social Anthropology
For the first ever Wiley Humanities Festival, we worked to create a diverse lineup of several fields from all over the world. To that end, we had the pleasure of Skypeing with Theodoros Rakopoulos, a social anthropologist currently on field work in Greece.
Listen as he speaks with Brian Giblin, Journals Publishing Manager at Wiley, about his work, work life balance in social anthropology, and more. Or, scroll down further to read the transcript.
Brian Giblin: Hello! Thank you for joining us today on our interview with Theodoros Rakopoulos. He is a post doc at the University of Bergen in Norway, and he is a social anthropologist. I am Brian Giblin, I am a journals publishing manager here at Wiley. We are recording this interview for the Wiley Humanities Festival, which is currently taking place online. It’s really to stress the focus of the importance of the humanities in today’s research.
We’ve set up a series of questions today to talk about Theo’s work and also the importance of the humanities. Theo, I guess we’ll get started. I have a first question for you. You are a social anthropologist with additional degrees in politics and law. Curious – why did you choose social anthropology?
Theodoros Rakopoulos: I guess because…the easy answer would be anthropology. It has an etymology that is rooted in hands-on knowledge. It is driven by ideas, but also by data. That very background of the discipline is fascinating in itself.
Many people are drawn to anthropology late in life, as I did after studies in other sciences – law and political science as you mentioned. They gave me some backing, so to speak, what I found I lacked was that hands-on empirical experience that ethnography provides. Social anthropology is a discipline pretty much founded on the idea of ethnography. As of recent, there has been debate in the discipline as to whether this is true or not, but by and large you can say that ethnographic field work is central to what makes social anthropology and anthropological knowledge. Field work is about going to a place and living with certain people for a quite an amount of time. It is also a discipline which is in itself incredibly vibrant. It also sort of inspires broader questions.
I’m Greek – “Rakopoulos” is a typical Greek surname – as you would guess. The etymology of anthropology is “anthropos” and “logos”: speaking about people versus persons in Ancient Greek. Really, it’s a discipline that is posing those big philosophical questions about what it is to be human, but roots them in the everyday nitty gritty details of casual and social life. It operates on this kind of paradox posing that Greek question, “what makes human?” But it sort of brings it to the details of what makes us so very diverse in terms of culture, place, race, class, you name it. So, this paradox is a fascinating one to pursue.
BG: Interesting! As this is a digital festival, wanting to talk about the impact of digital culture in the humanities and the prevalence of digital technology has greatly altered our socio-anthropological landscape. What ways do you see the discipline growing and evolving, building on what you just talked about? As a social anthropologist, how do you see it growing and evolving in the next century in light of these changes?
TR: In terms of the “digital revolution”?
TR: Well, Wiley knows, and big houses like Wiley know very well, that being online has been a reality – a necessity I should say – for all journals that are serving disciplines. An online presence for a journal is even more important than its print presence by now. All major journals have come in print form, but if I want to access it from say, my Brazilian field work, or from my office in Singapore, I’ll have to go online. So this distribution of information has made it very easy for social scientists to debate and communicate with each other. That has been great. And in fact, if you add social media to it, if you add that informal aspect of digital communication, you happen to know colleagues that you’ve met in departments, in places you’ve worked, conferences, etc., and you maintain that contact from a distance. That’s great. There are things to concede and I’m sure opportunities like this humanities festival at Wiley are good opportunities to think about these ways…and I think one issue to consider is peer reviewing.
Peer reviewing is something that social scientists complain all the time about, and they have good reason to do so, because it is a very strict process that we have borrowed from the hard scientists – the natural scientists. The natural sciences are interesting in that they operate on labs. So, all the results of a point I’m bringing forward to human knowledge can be tested. So I send my stuff to a Wiley journal, and you receive it as a peer reviewer, and go to your own lab to test it and find out, “well, that’s pretty neat. Let’s publish this.”
Now, social scientists and anthropologists don’t operate on this kind of stability, as it were. Borrowing this peer review process from the natural sciences has brought us into some problems. One way to move forward with peer reviewing online is maybe to make it more transparent. Open journal articles to more reviewers, and maybe allow them to comment online. This is an idea that needs to be thought of more thoroughly, I’m just throwing it [out] there. But, make peer reviewing more transparent and interactive would be great, and we’d greatly benefit as an academic community from this digital opportunity.
And I’ve spoken about the online presence of journals, but we might need to have more access to journals. I know there’s a huge economy behind the publishing industry that needs to be somehow acknowledged or respected, but this is an unequal world, and not all people that have thirst for knowledge across this globe have equal opportunity to grasp that knowledge. If we are indeed concerned about a better and more equal world, maybe opening the access to journals that deal with contemporary research might be a good step forward. I’m not making an argument about educating the masses, it’s really to say that a university in the Midwest or in India or in Argentina might not have that funding guaranteed access to online journals.
BG: I think one of the interesting points that the digital revolution has brought about, is the access to far reaching parts of the world where I think print could only get so far. That’s a wonderful nod to the digital revolution, that places and developing economies that have had maybe textbooks and journal copies from the 1960s or 70s – and that’s been their only resource because that’s what they could afford to have as a resource – the ability to provide access to research digitally to those economies that are developing I think is a real wonderful development within the digital realm. And I agree with you that more access is better, and that working in a publishing company… we work really hard to provide access to those countries and to extend out as far as possible. I think that’s a great thing that as we see develop in the digital world.
In your article that you’ve recently published with Social Anthropology, the article “Solidarity: the egalitarian tensions of a bridge concept,” you explore the ideas of solidarity as a\ bridge in people’s actions and understandings of selfhood in crisis. What is your take on the role of social media in creating and developing solidarity across traditional, geographic, and ethnographic borders?
TR: As I said earlier, social media…I’m an avid supporter of social media and I’m using both Facebook and Twitter – maybe overusing it! Academics are often procrastinators and social media does have that tendency to bombard you with information with what’s going on with the world or in your social hub, and it takes you away from work.
But having said that, it’s also a great place to share work, especially Twitter I would say! In fact, many online journals in academia are linked with twitter, so you can tweet about your latest comment or article or whatnot. That really helps with the dissemination of publications.
BG: I would think it is also great for building a network as well. As we sort of look at this idea of a digital festival, creating something digitally versus traditionally where you’re always going to conferences and meeting people in person, I would think it expands your network as well.
TR: Absolutely. Buiding networks from afar is always difficult, and so social media helps out with this. The solidarity aspect of social media is an interesting case. There has been quite a debate written in academic journals but also in journalistic outlets about what extent the information that is coming directly from the streets. For instance in terms of Twitter, say in demonstrations and strikes and you name it, how is that benefitting at all about the event [sic]? We are presumably entering an epoch of immediate information. We get much of our information directly from the source, which really destabilizes the whole idea of immediate. Immediate means NO medium. You get it from the source.
Tweeting from the street, for instance, has been a tremendous issue, say during the Arab Spring, but also in other institutions of democratic dissent. I would guess that much solidarity and agency is disseminated and mediated through social media. For instance, my article is departing from data about the Greek crisis. In the case of the Greek crisis, which is an enduring event and is not going to leave us anytime soon unfortunately, there was a very heated moment last summer when Greece was very likely to be ousted from the Eurozone and probably enter a very dire straits. (It is in very dire straits right now, but it could have been worse.) And there was an international campaign there was completely came out of the blue, completely impulsive, that operated under the hashtag #thisisacoup regarding the negotiations of progressive Greek government with its lenders. And we’ve seen that in the case of Argentina and in other cases of solidaritarian debate that takes place online.
So, I agree with you. I think there is much to be said about solidarity being bridged and creating bridges between social media users.
BG: Do you think that there is a significant impact, or does it alter the anthropological study of how people respond to crisis?
TR: I think it has something to be taken very seriously by anthropologists. We cannot just choose to not interact with this data that is temporal on social media, however, we should also be – and we are, anthologists are – cautious about where is the real and where is the bridge. The limits between the two worlds are increasingly becoming obsolete. However, we often tend to assume the public image for ourselves in social media. And we have a private life that is intentionally left outside. And the anthropologist should also especially study that private life of his or her interlocutors rather than watch always what they publish on social media.
BG: Yes, interesting. Moving onto the next question, how does your framework for an analysis of solidarity help us better understand the aftermath of current events like the mass shootings in Paris. How does it affect our collective social reaction to such events?
TR: I must admit this is quite a difficult question in terms of…academics often strive for appeal for what they’re trying to say. The article you mentioned is an introduction to a special section – me and an American friend and colleague edited this wonderful Wiley journal called Social Anthropology. And in this special section that contains a couple of other articles, we are acting in conceptualizing the idea of solidarity. But, as I also point out in that introduction, one should be somehow both enthusiastic about embracing solidarity and agency and solidarity practices, but also somehow cautious about its applicability. And I’m getting to your question! I’m not avoiding your question!
TR: It’s all tragic events that is really embedded in a global history of tension: imperialism and violence. Like the mass shootings we’ve witnessed in Paris last year. It can and maybe should be seen through the lens of solidarity, however solidarity should not be romanticized or overestimated in terms of what sort of analytical lens it offers. And it should definitely not be idealized in the sense that solidarity practices provide a practical political framework, but not provide an anthropological framework.
Trying to understand such complex and tense situations like the mass shootings in Paris…what I attempted to think through solidarity and similar notions like anthropologists are talking about…however it’s difficult to extrapolate a whole framework that could be applied in this case stemming from solidarity. Thinking about solidarity is helping us to think back to notions of mutuality, mutualism, sociality, sociability, hospitality, etc. that are very useful and we should not forget about them. We should be constantly be reminded of these. And they are indeed relevant in the intercultural domain that these recent events have played into. But they’re not thoroughly able to provide us with any answer in any way when thinking about this context.
BG: Do you think that they catalyze any change in the future? Do you feel that that has any economic or social change value? Does it drive any future events?
TR: It’s tempting for social scientists, especially anthropologists, to be what we say in the discipline to “go native”. That is, when you study activists, for instance, solidarity activism, you’re often incredibly sympathetic to what they’re doing. Say, for instance, as I speak now I’m in Greece where I’m doing field work for a few months now; northern Greece, where a huge camp of Syrian refugees is located, probably the biggest in Europe. There has been an incredible, even admirable, impulse for some segments of the Greek population towards providing out of sheer solidarity some basics for these people who are the children of war and devastation and that horrible ongoing conflict in their home country. Studying this is incredibly fruitful in terms of the whole emotional, political, and even if I could dare use that word “human” aspect of it. And because of this, one should be cautious to not be fully drawn into their [sic] own sympathies.
It is one thing to participate – anthropology is about participating in the lives of the people you work with, your interlocutors – you don’t just ask them a couple of questions, but you actively to some extent become a part of their lives. Participating in people’s world in solidarity could make you become very sympathetic towards solidarity. However, this should not mean one should idealize and make an ideology out of solidarity.
Solidarity has many notions that come across as good and benign. It has many faces. Some of them are not fully…to stick with the Greek example, solidarity is not something that is claimed by even fascist organizations that claimed that one should be in full solidarity within their own nationhood and race. Not all claims to solidarity or mutualism or corporation – which is another issue that I’ve worked on for a few years now – are by definition something to cling onto.
One should remain critical, and that’s really going back to your first question in this interview. What brought me into anthropology, me and thousands of other researchers, are drawn into anthropology because it pushes you to remain critical about what you think you’re seeing. Critical vis a vis all those notions that you encounter in the field that you reading the papers and that you sometimes think for yourself. You have to be reflexive of what you’re doing in that respect.
BG: Good, thank you. Let’s move onto maybe an easier question. This one has to do with the festival that we’re holding. We’re hoping that the festival will convey the value of the humanities, to anyone from young students, teachers, policy makers, and lifelong learners. How would you articulate the value of the humanities in research today?
TR: Oh! The humanities has been undisputed for many many centuries throughout what we call a quest for knowledge. And not only in the West! The value of the humanities really takes us back to the basic Kantian degrees about knowing. So, “what can I know?” Or indeed, “what is knowledge?” “Who am I who is asking, ‘what is knowledge?’”
This might come across as aloof and complex, but in fact it’s really syntactic. It really roots us back to our intellectual childhood. Because the more you learn, the more you realize that nothing is as Socrates said some time ago, and that still stands. And humanities are there to remind us of that. And the way to do that, I think, is providing the basis for knowledge.
So the humanities, and I’m talking about pretty much everything from geography and anthropology to literary criticism and history, what they do is they are a cognitive exercise, rather than – and I’m not here to criticize my colleagues in the natural sciences – we’re not really pumping numbers into people’s brains. We are here to intuition the very process of knowing and getting to know. That is in itself a good basis, if I could use a four syllable word, epistemology that is incredibly useful to really learn anything. It’s not by chance that for many centuries Western universities – not really Western, in fact Chinese as well – were operating on a basis of learning some basic humanities independently of the discipline you’re serving. Say theology and philosophy and ethics. They were basics in whatever thing you’d like to do for the rest of your life, be it a mathematician or you name it. It is a very sad and very recent phenomenon of the last more than 30 years or so in the period that… maybe I’m becoming too political but what we often call “neoliberal”…that the humanities in crisis. They’re underfunded, the media often seems to believe that, “well, I don’t really see the meaning about learning about fourteenth century Florence or about the kinship system of a tribe in Ghana. I mean, what do I care?” And in fact, it is not trivial information. It is providing us with a way to think critically and that…
BG: [interrupts] Exactly!
TR: I’m glad we agree!
TR: I know many people agree with that, but often are too timid to praise the humanities. The result is that we remain underfunded and it is scandalous if you compare the funding that goes into say… I don’t know, building or arms, scientists that operate into building weapons, and the funding that goes into medical anthropology.
BG: In my own studies(which seems like a million years ago) I studied biology and chemistry as one major, and I studied theology as another major, because I wanted to study both angles. In some ways they can be so conflicting in their ideologies, and I wanted to see one question from two different angles. And I’m actually very thankful that I did choose to take it from that perspective because I think speaking to your point: the theology side of things taught me how to think critically about my biological studies. It gave me tools – humanities tools – in question-asking, thinking, and just sort of rounded out the way that I looked at biology as an entire ecosystem of the world. And it was a fascinating dual way of looking at something. That’s why we agree on the importance of the humanities!
TR: Your case speaks volumes! This is exactly what I had in mind when I was making this argument. I’m glad you can do that in the states…in many countries you can’t pick. You can do a major, you have to do biology full on, but I know in the states you can do that and that’s great.
BG: Yeah, I’m thankful that I pushed myself to do that.
Well, rounding out to our last question. What advice would you give someone looking to pursue an advanced career in the humanities?
TR: I am too young to give any kind of advice!
BG: [laughs] Theo, you’ve been through it already, so you’re already a man with advice to give!
TR: Well, in that case, I’d pat them on the back and say, “just go for it.” It’s an incredibly rewarding experience intellectually, even emotionally. It’s a fulfilling…it doesn’t give you a sense of alienation (if I could use this old style term), but often some aspects of our lives are so [inaudible]. Precisely because of your job as something you build your selfhood around, something that is noteworthy, that it has an intellectual history, that it’s not disembodied from the rest of social life, if you see what I’m saying. Humanities and the social sciences have this positive aspect about not alienating you from the rest of your social experience in the sense that there is a huge debate now in the mainstream media, especially in the states, about work life balance.
I would say to someone thinking about pursuing a career in the humanities that you have it! You are studying and participating in social life at the same time. Work and life balance is achieved by definition if you’re pursuing a career in the humanities. Maybe I’m being too optimistic here, but I think it is time we start being!
BG: Yes, exactly! [laughs]
TR: [laughs] At some point, possibly pursuing more through our associations, for example anthropologists are blessed to be quite organized both in the states and in Europe, hopefully in other parts of the world too, about which associations and they’re putting forwards the idea of pursuing and advertising the discipline. I think we can only benefit from this, not only anthropologists but whoever wants to get involved in studying human society.
BG: Wonderful! This rounds out the list of questions we have. I guess we’ll come to the end of our interview. Theo, thank you. This has been a really great conversation, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it as well.
TR: It’s been great, Brian. This is very nice.
BG: Thank you again for participating and offering your perspective on this.
More about Theodoros Rakopoulos
Theodoros Rakopoulos is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Bergen, and is currently doing field work in Greece. Click here to read his article, “Solidarity: the egalitarian tensions of a bridge-concept” in the May 2016 issue of Social Anthropology.
More about Brian Giblin
Brian Giblin is a publishing professional living and working in Boston. He currently works at Wiley as a Journals Publishing Manager in the areas of Business, Management, and Policy Studies. In his spare time he enjoys baking, reading paperback books, and riding his bicycle.
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