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Institute of Cultural Anthropology



The ICA (Institute for Cultural Anthropology) is the semi-scientific journal of Itiwana, study association Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at the Leiden University. The ICA appears twice a year.


Text editors: ​           Media editors:            Editor in Chief

Roos Capel             Veronie Rouschop     Loes Moree

Remi ten Hoorn       Ole Witte

Irene Midttun

External authors: 

Florencia García-Rapp, Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Wouter Keijzer, Laura-Sofie van der Reijden, Finn.


​Iris Molenaar 

The editors reserve the right to shorten and edit articles or not to post them. Acquisition of (parts of) articles is only permitted after consultation with the editors.



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No pros without cons


The world would be boring without contrast. Every person would wear the same clothes. There would be no difference between sugar and salt. The winters in Siberia would be as cold as the summers in Egypt. You wouldn’t be able to read this page. All the manners and traditions would be the same in every culture. And most importantly: anthropology, the study of differences wouldn’t exist.


Contrast makes the world a beautiful and interesting place. In this magazine we will discuss this subject in relation to anthropology. What is the relation between those concepts? Anthropology is in my opinion a more complex version of contrast that gives a great variety of perspectives. I think the social world we live in is more complicated than simply the contrast between black and white. 


In this magazine we will connect contrast with anthropology in different ways. You can read about boundaries that are being made between groups. How are these groups defined and what are the differences between them? In addition, we discuss how boundaries can fade away when groups share a common goal.


Contrasting ways of doing research is another subject we will write about. You can read a study about online fieldwork on YouTube. How is this way of doing fieldwork different from offline investigations? Other authors in this issue discuss contrast in relation to social spending habits, music, fashion and judgement.


Let’s explore this social world with beautiful and complex contrasts in this issue!



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Norms and expectations of YouTube’s beauty community


About the author

Loes Moree is a third-year student of Cultural Anthropology, the Secretary of the Board of Itiwana and the Editor in Chief of the ICA editorial.

This article has creative common licence: 

This paper is based on 22 months of online fieldwork examining YouTube’s beauty community, specifically the beauty guru Bubz, her uploaded content, and user comments. We aim to conceptualize central community-specific dynamics and practices, particularly those related to self-presentation and identity management and their affordances for legitimized online popularity. We explain how the guru’s successful online persona is based on a performative blend of relatable, down-to-earth values, paired with a more aspirational and worthy of emulation side. Being an “ordinary-user-turned-famous” is seemingly an advantage, given the high relevance of authenticity when judging online celebrities. However, her inherent ordinariness also increases expectations of trustworthiness and honesty, precisely because she is, and continuous to perform daily, a regular user.


This article draws from a more encompassing ethnographic investigation that took place during 22 months between 2013 and 2015. The performed online fieldwork on YouTube, conducting systematic observation, coding, and interpretation, considered 313 videos (all available videos of the analysed channel until the beginning of data collection) and more than 10,000 user comments focused on the beauty channel Bubzbeauty. For this particular article, a purposeful sample of 50 videos, mainly vlogs, and 700 user comments was considered. These digital texts were chosen because they represent a wide range of data and variations in the dimensions of interest: community understandings and assumptions.

If we understand field site as “an assemblage of actors, places, practices and artefacts that can be physical, virtual, or a combination of both” (Taylor 2009 in Boellstorff 2012: 60), the channel, together with subscribers’ comments, and the practices of uploading, sharing, commenting, and (dis)liking are the constituting elements of our field site. Moreover, Lange highlights the relevance of considering not only videos but also YouTube comments which often feature the active performance, negotiation, and redefinition of implicit community roles and practices (Lange 2014: 145).

Therefore, for us, looking to uncover patterns of shared rules and norms that guide practices (see also Strangelove, 2010) within the beauty community, it was important to analyze not only Bubz’s tutorials and vlogs, but also viewers’ reactions and reflections. We consider seemingly trivial or random community practices as “legitimate data” (Boellstorff 2008: 68), which build a relevant analytical scope. According to this, we offer examples in the form of written comments and extracts from transcriptions of Bubz’s videos, where she actively performs — and often discusses in a self-reflective way — these behavioral guidelines.




Following the rules

In this section, we conceptualize ground rules active within the beauty community and examine how they frame daily practices. Given their high relevance for community members, these expectations are part of the essential steps to be understood and performed to achieve and sustain long-lasting popularity within YouTube’s beauty community.

We suggest here that behavioral and self-presentation guidelines are dynamically built, negotiated, enacted and enforced by the “community of interest” (Lange 2014: 16) made up of casual viewers, loyal subscribers and other gurus. As well as members of other social groups, gurus learn norms “by doing”: by interacting, reading and posting comments, as well as watching and creating content. As implicit social contracts, rules turn visible when broken because of the negative responses it leads to, in form of comments and eventually seen through channel metrics. 

We know that online groups develop standards which frame members’ practices (e.g., Baym, 2010). These community norms of practice are constantly evolving since they are actively negotiated and learnt through members’ ongoing interaction and participation. In this vein, Marwick points out that groups “reward with higher social status the use of [certain] behaviors and self-presentation strategies” (Marwick 2013: 14). These can be thought of as platform and community-based types of ideal personas (Duffy and Hund, 2015; Lovelock, 2017) which are relevant models to orient towards when defining and performing online selves.

Microcelebrity as a social practice, as defined by Senft (2013), is linked to the drive to achieve online visibility and success, which, implies commanding a fan base and gaining sustained attention through loyal followers or subscribers. In order to achieve this, celebrities, wannabe celebrities, regular users, and beauty gurus alike need to project a coherent online presence, focused on the characteristics and skills valued by that community or platform and following specific group norms grounded on ongoing interactions and community values (Lange, 2014).

For instance, Baym (2010) names humor and self-deprecation as established and shared attitudes on Facebook status updates and comments. Similarly, we identified certain personality traits as especially beneficial in constructing a profitable self-presentation on YouTube’s beauty community, as for instance, self-motivation and being positive, availability and accountability. Moreover, our findings suggest that it is essential for gurus to be kind and supportive of their audiences. The following is an example of Bubz motivating her viewers:  'It is in my prayer that you will all realize one day that you are capable of greatness. First you believe. Then you achieve.’ Furthermore, if Bubz was not able to upload a video tutorial when promised, she is expected to address this issue in her next video and apologize for “not being there”, usually naming the reasons for the delay. For example, she writes in the textual description of her video “How to treat hormonal acne 101” from December 2012: ‘Sorry for not uploading a video for like a week. Not been feeling too well lately. Must be the weather x_X’

If the guru receives too many comments and cannot answer them all, she is supposed to address requests and questions, as well as to thank viewers for their ongoing feedback and praise during her videos. She also uses the space below her videos to actively promote her incoming uploads and her line of makeup brushes. These are all considered performative practices and strategies to improve and sustain one’s online position and visibility.


How passionate are you?

As discussed, our analysis of video content and user comments identified some important rules to be followed when seeking popularity on YouTube’s beauty scene. In addition, we collected various pieces of relevant community-specific data highlighting the notion of “passion” and of “being passionate” about work, career, content creation, and YouTube, among others. We suggest that the most important step is to clearly convey the message that you do, whatever it is you do online, because “you really want it“ and not to gain status, money or perks, but due to selfless, “altruistic” (see also Duffy, 2015; Duffy and Hund, 2015; Marwick, 2013a) and passionate reasons.

Moreover, on YouTube, usually being passionate about something, means exactly the opposite of “doing it for money”. There is no middle ground. There seem to be only two possibilities: if a user does not create a channel and uploads videos (only) because it is their biggest passion, and with the aim of motivating or helping others, then it must be surely created out of greed. These users are, then, seen as “just seeking attention” to gain views and to capitalize on their videos. On YouTube, paths to fame and recognition must not seem premeditated; moreover, they better be unintentional and unplanned.

This would mean, depending on the specific community, having a certain “vision”, which can, and will, in some way, help people or contribute to making their lives, easier, fuller, and happier. For instance, a YouTube channel dedicated to “finding your inner beauty”, and to “inspire others” as Bubz described her aim when uploading content. Gurus have to be authentic, honest and trustworthy, and, must accordingly, only upload content or even decide to create a channel for the “right reasons”. This implies, for instance, that it would be not well seen to name money or fame as reasons for starting a new YouTube channel. Therefore, and similar to the narratives of makeover and reality TV shows, aspiring practitioners and influential gurus are supposed to participate for the right reasons: this can be a deep-rooted dream, or selfless, solidarity missions such as “helping others”.
In this context, it is essential to contribute to the image of “working hard to achieve” dreams, with passion and commitment. Then, and only then, the person would be considered by the community as deserving their eventually successful career, as well as the subsequent professional, social reputation, and fame it entails. The relevance of authenticity, particularly a successfully and consistently performed authenticity, as well as the notions of talent, and hard-work as seen by this community are very relevant to understand the subject position of “beauty guru” (see García-Rapp, forthcoming).


Being an attainable role model
Successful gurus must be fun, creative, open, honest, spontaneous, and most importantly, they have to, always and at all times, be authentic. These habitualized and shared community norms helped establish authenticity as the epitome of legitimized online popularity (also Abidin and Thompson, 2012; Duffy, 2015; Duffy and Hund, 2015; Marwick, 2013b). As Hearn and Schoenhoff write, authenticity is currently “the ultimate arbiter of value” (Hearn and Schoenhoff 2015: 200).

At the end of the day, it all comes down to how authentic someone is or is displayed to be, something which has also been traditionally relevant for cinema stars (Dyer 1986). Bubz remains worthy of emulation and praise for being “a regular girl”: down-to-earth, relatable, humble and ordinary. As seen on these examples of user comments, Bubz is considered a relatable person and praised for her truthfulness and honesty: ‘You are TRUE, Bubz. REAL. And we can ask for nothing more than that. I am a better me because you are trying to be a better you. We may live continents apart, but we are sisters. I hope to one day meet you. Until then, m’dear, keep filming. I’ll be here ^_^’

To summarize, in order to sustain interest and popularity, she is expected to reveal the right amount of information to remain down-to-earth by displaying transparency, honesty, and commonness. At the same time, she has to balance the need to remain aspirational, worthy of emulation, and somehow unreachable enough. After having started sharing content in 2008, by the end of 2009 she already was the fifth most subscribed YouTube user in the U.K. but still depicted herself as an “everyday girl” and far from being a beauty expert. Moreover, she described herself on her channel profile as “the biggest dork on the planet”, always highlighting her amateur nature: “Just your everyday girl who wants to share makeup, beauty and hair innovations”.


The phenomenon of YouTube beauty gurus clearly brings together the social aspect of sharing personal information, footage of daily activities and building affective connections with revenue-oriented aspects: namely self-branding, achieving high status and maintaining good reputations as professional, responsible, and influential personalities. This juxtaposition of two differing, and often antithetical, societal spheres — the commercial logic of self-promotion and the social creation of feelings of closeness with the audience — has implications for the construction of gurus’ subject positions. These creative, cultural activities are also commercialized and due to this, they are ambivalent and often contradictory (Tolson, 2010).

We undertook this ethnographic project in order to better understand the culture surrounding Bubz and her viewers in view of online popularity. More specifically, it was our objective to address and help articulate the dynamics of YouTube’s beauty community and the core values guiding online practices. Because groups foster certain types of community-dependent ideal personas, it is relevant to note that “achievement that is considered sufficient to rightfully inhabit the micro-celebrity subject position is highly variable and context dependent” (Marwick 2013a: 135). Therefore, we sought to shed light into the politics of success of this particular community. In the case of YouTube’s beauty community, the right to self-branding is awarded only to those considered “real”, honest, hard-working, talented and inherently “deserving” gurus (see also García-Rapp, 2017). While YouTube expects gurus to perform a carefully monitored, business-oriented, online persona, the community of pairs and viewers expects them to always be reachable, trustworthy, honest, and authentic. This implies in daily practice that she needs to manage with care the opinions she shares so as not to damage her reputation in the eyes of advertisers, while being relatable and close to her viewers.

As a “subcultural celebrity” (Hills 2006: 103), Bubz grows from her niche community to actively perform not only consumerism but celebrity. Thanks to the blend enabled by her tutorials and vlogs, legitimized, and accepted by the viewers, she continues working on her external, commercially oriented positioning and value by uploading more tutorials. She gains recognition through her informational tutorials and achieves the strongest sense of connection through her vlogs, which not only sustain and renews viewers’ interest but also re-signify her condition of “ordinary” relatability (García-Rapp, 2017). By doing this, her vlogs confirm and legitimate (Dyer, 1998; Tolson, 2010) her subject position as a renowned personality, a YouTube celebrity.

About the authors

Florencia García-Rapp is is Lecturer in Media Audiences and Users at the University of Sheffield (Journalism Department). She was awarded a PhD in Communication by Pompeu Fabra University. She holds a Master’s Degree in Media Culture from Paderborn University and a Degree in Audiovisual Communication. Her research interests lie at the intersections of digital and celebrity culture with audience and fandom research.

Dr. Carles Roca-Cuberes is a Lecturer in the Department of Communication, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Spain, where he teaches communication theory and social research methods. He obtained his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Manchester (U.K.). He has published in the areas of interpersonal and mediated communication, and education.

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How virtual reality can be used to create peace


In March 2018 Mensen met een Missie and Hack the Planet released a film called: ‘Meet the Soldier’. However, this film is no ordinary film; it is a virtual reality film. By using this new technology it was possible to let two rival tribe leaders experience each other’s worlds in VR. Could this be a big step towards peace?

We interviewed Rick van der Woud, director of Mensen met een Missie. We asked him about Meet the Soldier and the potential of virtual reality.


What is ‘Mensen met een Missie’?

Rick: ‘The roots of Mensen met een Missie (People with a Mission) go back about 90 years ago. An organization – then with another name - was founded to support the mission of Dutch catholic congregations. Over the years Mensen met een Missie has evolved. We are now an organization of international cooperation and solidarity, focused on small scale, local community building, especially in regions prone to conflict. We support people through supporting community leaders. Leaders who are brave enough to stand for the rights of their people. Leaders who make sure that their people are involved in decision making processes that affect their lives.


Our specialty is to take into account the religious factor in the work that we do. We believe that in many situations the religious factor can be part of the solution. This can take shape in different forms. For example, supporting bishops in DR Congo who have the ability to call for peace during the elections. Or supporting imams in Mombasa (Kenya), who are trying to keep the youth away from terrorist organizations. So the situations differ but our focus is on (in)formal religious leaders. Our projects are usually focused on peace and reconciliation.’

What is ‘Meet the Soldier’?
Rick: ‘
Meet the Soldier is a joint venture of, Q42, Hack the Planet, Wolfstreet and Fabrique. These four organisations approached us with the idea to make a film that uses virtual reality to promote peace. Since we work on peace and reconciliation processes, they asked us if we could be a partner in this project. We immediately thought about Uganda where Mensen met een Missie has been present for about 30 to 40 years and where we have built a vast network of local partners.

The movie was made in Karamoja, the North-East of Uganda. Cattle is very important for the survival of the people who live there. In the past many lives were lost in violent cattle raids; communities of tribes living the in the plain raiding cattle from communities of tribes living in the mountains. Even though the violent raids are a thing of the past, because of this past, relations between different tribes remain fragile. Members of the different tribes look at each other with suspicion and distrust.

This is the setting in which Meet the Soldier was recorded. In the film, two rival tribe leaders meet in virtual reality. They visit each other’s worlds and listen to each other, recounting the days of the violent raids.

The main goal of virtual reality is making it possible for people to meet without physically encountering each other. The virtual reality experience allows you to immerse yourself in the world of someone else. In this particular case, it created the opportunity for former enemies to listen to each other and to start to bond without the tension of a physical encounter.’

As a spectator of the movie, you see in VR how the two tribe leaders meet in VR, you join them in their virtual journey to the different sides where the violent story took place.

Was the film effective in promoting peace between the tribes?

Rick: 'The making of the movie involved many people from both tribes. A lot of people were curious to see the film set with the camera crew and equipment. This caused the tribe members to follow their leaders to the set. When filming with a 360 camera, you have to do your utmost to keep out of shot what should not be filmed. It was funny to see how people from different tribes together with the film crew were hiding behind bushes to do so. It was a great experience, because it caused the people of the rival tribes to connect with each other. This changed their perspective of each other. Before, they had only heard negative stories of the other tribe. The other tribe members who were supposed to be ‘evil’ actually turned out to be normal people.

Something that also helped was that the film was recorded in multiple locations. Because of this people were confronted with the history of their fights. People had to explain and reflect on what happened. Stories of tribal history suddenly became real. These were conversations that were not held before.

One year after the production, Mensen met een Missie went back to Karamoja with the movie and VR goggles to show the edited movie to the two tribe leaders and to their communities. For larger groups to see the result we organised screenings to show the movie in 2D.

There were people that almost jumped into the screen when they saw a (staged) preparation for a raid! Seeing the footage made the tribes think back about the raids. Are we going to continue with raiding? What have the raids brought us?

So the film has been effective in bringing people together. The process of filming was maybe even more effective than the film itself. This made encounters possible and tightened relations. Right now Mensen met een Missie is, together with our local partners working on improving the position of women within the communities.’

Are their plans for using virtual reality again in the future?

Rick: ‘There are certain difficulties with using this new technology. Firstly, it is expensive. Secondly, in the areas where we work the facilities that we need are not always there, such as electricity to support all the equipment. Finally, few people actually can or do watch virtual reality at home. The uniqueness of the technology therefore also becomes it’s limitation. But we certainly want to continue to explore the options to use virtual reality in our work, even though the technology comes with difficulties. It would be a shame to not use the potential that it brings. Meet the Soldier attracted a lot of attention and the film was awarded several times. It was nominated for prizes at film festivals and the film won a Spin Award. For us it was also a successful way to show to our donors the work Mensen met een Missie does. So the concept was appreciated and we certainly want to continue to explore it.’

If you want to see the short documentary Mensen met een Missie made about bringing back the VR film to the people in Karamoja, Uganda:

Ariko (links) en Lamoromoe,  hoofdperson

About the authors

Rick van der Woud is director of ‘Mensen met een Missie’ and experienced political adviser and negotiator with a demonstrated history of working with political and

religious organizations, as well as the broader civil society. He is skilled in dealing with and negotiating on issues affecting Nonprofit Organizations. Strategically apt, as well as versed in Public Affairs, Sustainable Development, Corporate Social Responsibility, and Government.


Ole Witte is a first years anthropology student. He participated in the '100 reporters' trip to Kenya with 'Mensen met een Missie', as a photographer. 

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Museum Voorlinden: the museum of contrasts


Museum Voorlinden is widely known among the youth in the Netherlands. Having seen photos of the museum all over Instagram, we had our expectations. The exhibitions in the museum are not only truly magnificent constructed, they also contain high amounts of contrast. What surprised us the most was the wide range of different art we could see at the museum. The exhibition with the title Less is More caught our attention the most. It is about the fact that we are constantly wanting more and that a counter-argument has emerged arguing that Less is More. In short, tons of people are striving for a new way of living: minimalism.

This is a trend that can be seen in art galleries all over the world. In Museum Voorlinden this can be seen in the aforementioned exhibition that shows how artists are being influenced by the concept of less and focusing on the clean and simple. 

Beside the exhibitions, there are also some ‘highlights’ in the museum that can be visited permanently. These contain, among other things, the Couple under an Umbrella or Maurizio Cattelans mini-elevators. There is a great contrast between the Couple under an Umbrella, which is made on a detailed large-scale, and the elevators, which are only a few centimeters.

Another interesting thing in the museum was the link between art on the inside and art on the outside of the museum. A giant spider-like artwork by Louise Bourgeois was guarding the entrance of the museum, while on the inside, a little spider could be seen in the exhibition To Unravel a Torment showing more work by Louise Bourgeois.









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Besides the more static art, the museum was also quite interactive. There was the Infinity Room: a dark, mirror-walled room where a hundred light bulbs, which continuously change colour, hang from the ceiling, or the famous Swimming Pool, where it looks like the visitors are underwater.

The museum contains a diverse collection of art, all modern, but all interesting in their own way, which makes it interesting for a big audience. Less is More is open until 19 January 2020 at museum Voorlinden.

About the author

Rémi ten Hoorn is a first years anthropology student. She likes to write and is interested in art and the impact on different cultures. 


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In a sense, all that exists are contrasts, or opposites. Only differences that make a difference convey information, Bateson taught us long ago. When you are an ethnographer in the field and think you've made a discovery, you probably have, but a useful rule of thumb is to look for its opposite immediately. You're bound to find that as well. Since every phenomenon has many possible opposites, you may even look for a spectrum of contrasts emanating from your discovery.

In the last few decades, something has happened to the way we speak and think about boundaries, borders and the distinction between the self and the other. It is as if a world of borders has been replaced with one of fuzzy frontiers. It is as if a social universe where boundaries were once crisp and clear has been superseded by one difficult to decipher, where every social relationship seems to be under negotiation. I am not the first person to make this observation, and naturally, the nature of boundaries has been interrogated before. In William Blake's time, the great artist was reputedly asked why he drew outlines around creatures and objects, since nothing has outlines in reality. According to Bateson (1972), Blake once answered that wise men see outlines, and therefore they draw them. But on another occasion, he allegedly said that mad men see boundaries, and they therefore draw them.

Nearly a century later, Nietzsche muses, in The Wanderer and his Shadow (§67):


The general imprecise way of observing sees everywhere in nature opposites (as, e.g., ‘warm and cold’) where there are, not opposites, but differences in degree. This bad habit has led us into wanting to comprehend and analyse the inner world, too, the spiritual-moral world, in terms of such opposites. An unspeakable amount of painfulness, arrogance, harshness, estrangement, frigidity has entered into human feelings because we think we see opposites instead of transitions.


In other words, life is process, difference is a continuum rather than being marked by rupture and sharpness, and transitions are everywhere if you just care to look for them. This floating world may seem attractive, but it has its internal problems and  besides, it is never fully realised. Communities draw boundaries around themselves and have always done so, even if criteria for membership varies. Sometimes, you have to prove common descent and sometimes it is sufficient to settle and follow local custom. When we classify the world we also think in terms of bounded, contrasting entities. A male is not a female. A sun is not a moon. Broken skin leaks bodily fluid and is problematic because it reveals a fissure in the body's boundary that may have detrimental long-term effects.

Bounded entities give a feeling of order, security and empowerment, and we soldier on, bravely facing the Sisyphean task of tidying up the chaos of the world. This is why controversy erupts, and uneasiness results, when boundaries are being challenged.

In our time, more boundaries are being questioned and destabilised than has been the case for a very long time. There is a nervousness about Europe these days, an insecure anxiety which drives the constituent parts of the continent towards withdrawal and increasingly desperate attempts to reinstate unambiguous boundaries within, while simultaneously solidifying the external borders through militarisation of the Mediterranean and strict policies on refugees from non-Europe.

Norway is no exception. The gender boundary is being destabilised, e.g. through the rise of the LGBT movement and discourses about gender equality (or equity). The nature/culture boundary is challenged through the growing awareness that the very success of cultural projects is also a recipe for their ultimate failure through our destruction of the very conditions for our long-term survival. And not least, the boundary of the national community is continuously being questioned. Who should have the right to call themselves Norwegians, how should the flows through the osmotic membrane enclosing the national community be regulated, what kinds of variation is acceptable, is it possible for the country to leave the ethnic and racial ideas about nationhood behind once and for all – or, in an even more radical bid, does nationhood matter at all, or should a broader cosmopolitanism or universal humanism serve as a moral compass when we encounter global crises, inequalities, injustices and catastrophes? There is no easily discernible hegemonic discourse, but rather multiple polarisations and opposing views made visible at every crossroads. No available map fits the territory perfectly. The anxiety is not so much a result of boundaries being crossed, but rather their tendency to dissolve, or move, or change, before our very eyes.

The destabilisation of boundaries has also been observed in the academic world. For a hundred years, anthropologists studied the Other, and although there was considerable disagreement over the nature of the Other and his origins, the boundary between the civilised, academic self and the remote, exotic other was rarely put into question. For a brief period in the late 20th century, the study of the self-as-other became fashionable, and metropolitan anthropologists wrote about their own group, relying on a suspension of disbelief in their readers, as if they were Trobriand islanders or Zulu tribesmen. At this time, the boundary was already destabilised. Never again to return intact. It has become increasingly clear that the craft of anthropology – the study of human variation and diversity – has now transmuted into the study of the boundary as such, seen as a wriggling, shapeshifting, foggy and slippery thing, a ‘now you see it, now you don't’ kind of phenomenon which we cannot, nevertheless, afford to discard.

Two major statements about boundaries were published in the 1960s; Fredrik Barth's Ethnic Groups and Boundaries (1969) and Mary Douglas' Purity and Danger (1966). Barth showed how persons, ideas and things could flow across the ethnic boundary separating groups. Under certain circumstances, you could even change ethnic membership, which has happened in the recent past when Sami or Travellers became Norwegians, eradicating every visible trace of their background. However, Barth did not question the boundary as such. You could cross it and penetrate the osmotic membrane of the social cell, but you couldn't destroy it.

Coming from another theoretical background, and representing a very different genre of anthropological writing, Douglas was concerned with the relationship between the boundaries of the body and the social order, exploring how the latter reflected the former. Like Barth, she studied borderwork, but had a more acute understanding of the amount of effort that goes into the maintenance of boundaries. They continuously need to be defended against the forces of chaos and disruption. Notably, she speaks of anomalies in classificatory systems as that which does not fit in, that which is neither–nor and both–and: The abhorrent pig in Hebrew culture. The strange pangolin among the Lele of Kasai. And, we may safely add, the inscrutable, secretive and potentially threatening Travellers of contemporary Norway, to whom I shall soon turn.


Building on, but also departing from complementary insights in Barth and Douglas, social theorists have later critically investigated, subverted and destabilised the boundary itself, through concepts such as hybridity (Bhabha 1994), cultural creolisation (Hannerz 1987), the frontier as an alternative to the boundary (Cohen 1994) and so on. Neither the gender boundary, the cultural boundary nor the ethnic boundary has any reason to feel safe from unexpected assaults for now. A question asked by many during the last couple of decades is how long the national border and the governmental politics of identity will be able to withstand the pressure from dissolving boundaries. The answer is that it is likely to go down fighting. For the time being, the winds are blowing in a direction strengthening both national borders and social boundaries, but this will change again, as it has in the past.  It is nevertheless likely that a major controversy across the continent in the coming years and decades will concern the meaning and implications of the word ‘we’, that sticky ticket to the realm of belonging.



In a city museum somewhere in Germany – its precise location eludes me – I once saw an old engraving depicting the city and its borders, clearly delineated by a city wall patrolled by armed guards. Beyond the city were wild beasts, bandits and barbarians; inside it was an orderly hierarchy based on a set of rules enabling everyone to find their rightful place. On the wall itself sits, spread-eagled, a grinning witch. Neither wild nor domesticated, neither civilised nor barbarian, she threatens the very boundary separating nature from culture. Therein lies the main threat of the witch in traditional European society; she transgresses boundaries and questions their validity, making fun of squeamish conformism and making light of constraining rules.


On this background, the attempt on the part of many European governments to control, eradicate or expel Roma Gypsies may rightfully be called a witch-hunt. They threaten to rip open the fabric of society by consistently breaking rules of conformity holding society together as a moral community. They reject wage work, ignore national borders, disrespect the laws of the state, and they have neither permanent addresses nor exam papers. In Norway, as elsewhere in the continent, the salient categories of the local culture are made visible through responses to Roma transgressions.


In recent years, the number of itinerant Roma visiting Norway for a few weeks or months at the time has grown, and begging Roma have become a common sight in Norwegian towns. On occasion, they have established makeshift camps in parks and forest areas near Oslo, moving elsewhere when evicted, and invariably leaving a trail of rubbish behind. As my colleague Cathrine Moe Thorleifsson has shown, the Norwegian outrage at the misbehaviour of the Roma is not so much motivated by economic anxieties, unlike in other European countries, but by their transgression of the nature/culture boundary (Eriksen and Thorleifsson 2018). Being Norwegian entails respecting the purity and intrinsic value of Norwegian nature. They are the abject Other, human waste as Bauman (2004) would put it, superfluous and disposable. While Syrian refugees are feared by many Norwegians for their sheer numbers and assumed religious fanaticism, itinerant Roma are feared for their ability to subvert core values and break down established boundaries, in spite of their being few and politically weak.


Roma Gypsies can unequivocally be defined as being the opposite of good Norwegians, and their subversions consistently confirm the boundaries of the moral community and the invisible, but real norms reproducing it. They seem to make every mistake in the book, and of course, they do not want to be part of the greater family of Norwegians any more than the latter will accept Roma in it. With another Gypsy group, the situation is different, and it sheds light on the politics of boundary work and belonging in  another way. While Roma are ‘matter out of place’ and ‘human waste’, the Travellers, or tatere, are an anomaly, like the mediaeval witch. Neither fully inside nor fully outside, they are physically indistinguishable from ethnic Norwegians; they speak the language without an accent and are usually economically self-sustaining; yet, they insist on maintaining cultural practices and values which the Norwegian state has tried to eradicate for generations, with limited success.


First described in the 16th century, there has been disagreement as to whether Travellers should be considered Gypsies at all. Their origins have been variously attributed to Gypsy immigration and the domestic underclass. The truth must lie somewhere in between. Many travellers describe themselves as ‘a mixed people’. Their language, known in Norway as Romani (as opposed to the Romanés spoken by Roma), is classified as a Gypsy language, but it contains many Scandinavian words. Today, around 5,000 persons identify as Travellers, but only a few hundred, at the most, speak the language well. There are also Swedish and Finnish travellers who consider themselves members of the same group as the Norwegian ones.

Travellers have historically engaged in many of the same economic activities as Roma, but they also took seasonal work at farms, and were known for having a good hand with horses. Following decades of persecution and brutal assimilationism on the part of the state, travellers are today mostly settled, but many travel extensively in the summer months. They are sometimes turned down at campsites, discriminated against in the labour market, treated with suspicion in welfare offices – but also praised for their handicrafts and their musical traditions, and envied for their ethos of freedom and independence.


We might say that the Roma fit into the overall scheme of classification and the boundary work engaged in by ethnic Norwegians. They can easily be depicted as the opposite of us; everything that ‘we’ are not. With Travellers, the situation is trickier. They can become us, and they cannot. They are already us, but then again, they're not. They straddle the city wall, their cultural influence seeps through the openings of the osmotic membrane of the cell; indeed, they themselves flow in and out. Like transgender people, adopted children, halfies with one Norwegian and one foreign parent, they are indeterminate and anomalous.


It is not the abject Other that threatens the integrity of the boundary. They can be excluded easily enough. The danger lies in the indeterminate; those who cannot be classified because they are neither inside nor outside, yet both at the same time. This is why the image of the drowned child on a Greek island made such an impression on so many Europeans. They realised that it could have been their child, or their sibling's. In social boundary making, the difficult part does not consist in dehumanising or excluding people who appear to be profoundly different from ourselves, but finding the proper place, or niche, or opening, for those who resemble us without being quite ‘us’. Which brings us full circle back to the most complex of all questions asked in social science or social theory, namely what the word ‘we’ should be taken to mean. Probably one of the first ontological questions asked by humans, it has lost none of its potency or difficulty. And we are nowhere near a final answer.


Image by Mikita Karasiou

About the author

Thomas Hylland Eriksen is an anthropologist and writer at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo. His work is focused on three things: To understand the present world, to understand what it means to be human, and to help bring about social and environmental change.





I have been living in China for more than 20 years. However, I still found it quite easy to adopt life here. The world is more connected than ever, and I can simply get information through the internet, books, and even films and dramas. Personally, it is easy to imagine crazy western teenagers living on the other side of the planet, and I was ready to be one of them. However, there were still several moments where I experienced a ‘cultural shock’. I remember during my first week here I was invited to the house of some of my local friends in Leiden. We had a lovely time, yet one thing confused me: the guests had to pay my friend every time they took a new bottle of beer from the fridge. It was already clear to me that Dutch people prefer sharing the payment, but it was surprising that this was also the case at a house party. In China, it is important to show your generosity and hospitality; it is the host's responsibility to prepare the food and drinks for his guests. Calculating money all the time can be considered mean and stingy. But in my friend's house, this is part of the norm and therefore normal. They even made fun of it by asking for "beer tax".

I then started to reflect on the differences between social situations in China and the Netherlands. Firstly, Chinese people are always glad to pay the bills, not only in family situations, but also in restaurants or other social occasions. Some people may even find an excuse to leave the table (for making a phone call or for going to the toilet), and then do the payment secretly before their friends notice. This is generally considered a nice act in China. Part of the motivation for such an act may be that the person believes that they can always get payback at later moments. In addition, it is not the same person who pays the bills every time, it is rotating. It is an important social skill in China to remember the one who paid your bill and do something in return for him once you find an opportunity; it can be a gift, a favor or just pay his bill next time you are together. We can further ask what is the most complicated method? Calculate and exchange money all the time, owe nothing when you leave your friend's house, or let someone pay first and then keep it in your mind until you find a way to pay back?
The Chinese way of dealing with money is explained by the fact that in general traditional values, bonds and relations are not related to money. Talking about money when you are getting along with your mates can be offensive; when doing this, it can easily be perceived as a way of saying that you are comparing your friendship to money. "Regard money as dirt" is an adorable attitude in Chinese social situations. Secondly, paying in turns makes money calculated much more roughly, which reduces the financial gap among friends. When a wealthy man treats his friend a luxury meal in a nice restaurant, his less wealthy friend can pay him back by making him a meal at home; that is still considered fair enough and no one's self-esteem is hurt while both of them    

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accept each other's hospitality. One's destiny can be changed dramatically in Chinese society, so you need to show that it is the bond and personality instead of unreliable wealth that matters in your true friendship.

It seems that all the social behaviors are rooted deeply into the cultural backgrounds of different societies, people can always find the best solutions in their daily life.

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About the author

Finn Pan is a first years anthropology student at Leiden University, but he is born and raised in China. He finds it 

interesting to learn about the differences between cultures, for example the Netherlands and China


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Approximately two years ago, I landed on Bali, but I quickly figured out that this was not what I was looking for. Some hours later I arrived in Labuan Bajo on the Island of Flores. This was an undiscovered gem, where the time seemed to have stopped. That was exactly what I was looking for; Bali twenty years ago. Coffee, mangoes and bananas were grown in the backyard and a calendar from 2013 was hanging on the wall.

After several hours on local transport heading east on the island, curious smiles and a ton of ‘Pisang Goreng’, I ended up in the Nganda district. Some hours later, a family member in the guesthouse I was staying in took me on the back of his motor cycle to a village close by. I was met by local coffee from the garden and an invitation to the annual Reba festival that was starting a few days later. This is where the photo was taken. I met these guys who was warming up with rice, strong wine and the cigarettes I bought them as a gift. In between mouths full of rice, they were singing traditional songs.

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About the author

Irene Midttun is a first years anthropology student at Leiden University, but she is born and raised in Norway. She loves to travel and to photograph. 


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                                          About the author

Wouter Keijzer is a third years anthropology student and is doing a minor in philosophy. He is also the Education Officer of the Itiwana Board.

Structuring the chaos

That is because it does have a practical use: protection of our ego. Well, the illusion or belief that it does. I feel like the protection of the ego is a constant activity, as it’s the modern-day manifestation of the instinct for survival. One way we do that is transforming the chaotic, nuanced and incomprehensible outside (and inside, in the equally present and harmful form of self-judgement) world into a superficial, one-dimensional, simplified reality. We tend to search for a less uncomfortable sense of safety through the structuring of everything, in order to get a feeling of control over the protection of our ego. And part of that is the tendency to demonise everyday trivial difference. 

Essentializing the everyday circumstances, including the demonisation of the person judged, is the essence of that simplification. Actually, it is more nuanced than that. Essentializing is part of the constant process of simplification with the intent of protecting the ego, but the demonisation of the thing that is judged does not have to lead to essentializing the other person as if they are solely that negative, inferior characteristic (although it often is what unconsciously happens). Structuring the chaos is an attempt at superficially categorising things that deviate from your core conception of what is desirable and what is not. That contrast or difference can be frightening and must thus be neutralised to the extent that it can’t be seen as an unexpected threat anymore, and the way in which that is done, is through pointing out someone else’s ‘flaw’, often essentializing them based on it, and devaluing that characterisation, to have it opposite to yourself. 

A more specific reason for neutralising the ‘dangerous' contrast, is that it accounts for our own shortcomings and insecurities, as we often have the need to justify our own flaws. What we demonise and often essentialise in the other is whatever that jumps out to us, because in a way, we are dissatisfied with our own thing. It does not have to be out of jealousy because they have what we want, but it can simply be a trigger for frustration with our dissatisfaction. We protect ourselves from ourselves through labelling someone else as inferior. 

Sadly, that doesn’t seem like a healthy defence mechanism; judging others to account for our own shortcomings and insecurities. And in the light of explanation and justification, I do not think this motivation justifies many cases of invalid judgements. Harmless contrast is not something to neutralise, nor something to make harmful through the unjust mechanism of ego-protection.

Contrast and judgement

Contrast between people, in whatever shape or form, is regularly something conflict is created over. Whether it is difference in social or economic class, political ideology, religion, visible descent, gender, or ‘smaller’ contrasts, such as choice of clothes, choice of words, or difference in smartphone (apple vs. android), people tend to judge others based on some contrast. It is that everyday judgement of even the smallest things which is the core of social discipline and demarcation of what is and is not desirable behaviour. We influence the limiting of people’s freedom through our judgements. 

Yet the thing with them is that they are often superficial; based on merely the difference in reality, on your different upbringings, friends, position in society, the things you identify with; those things all shape your opinions and subjective perspective on things. Most, if not all, judgement is based on difference in understanding and in perspective. So that creates some questions: What is the point of negatively judging someone for something which makes sense in someone else’s world, and which is not harming anyone whatsoever? Why would you value someone’s choice of wearing a certain kind of pants instead of another? Why is one pair ‘wrong’ and another ‘right’?

That creates the distinction between valid and invalid judgement. In my eyes, it is only possible to validly judge someone when it is based on the intentions/motivations and consequences of their actions — and understanding someone's intentions or motivations requires you to see from their perspective and to experience what they experience. And once you come close to that point, and you find an explanation for their behaviour and thought process, the most relevant distinction is between explanation and justification. The question is whether the intention/motivation merely makes you understand the action that followed, which you can thus rightly judge, or whether the intention actually justifies and excuses the consequences of the action. Valid judgement is when both the other’s motivation and the actual consequences of the action have been taken into account, invalid judgement is when they haven’t been.

The practical use of valid judgement is clear: it functions to prevent disproportionate negative consequences from happening again. However, in most cases of judgement, they are not even based on a negative consequence, but just on a difference in reality. Then what’s the point of invalid judgement? You could say it is not necessarily harmful by making a distinction between internally judging someone else and openly sharing it, claiming that keeping it to yourself is harmless. Both end up with negative consequences, at least with a subliminal influence on your actual behaviour during interaction with them, or your vibes influencing other people’s opinions, thus strengthening the negative valuation of the thing without there being any point to it. Invalid judgement can only have negative consequences on other people (other than the possible positive effect on their process of self-acceptance, but I am not convinced the chance of positive influence compensates for the risk of hurting them). 

So why do we judge invalidly, even though we know that it doesn’t have a practical use?

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Lebanese citizens and Syrian refugees are living together in close proximity in Bourj Hammoud, a suburb of Beirut. The contrasts this fosters are stark; differences in access to education, health care and public services are ample. With the current protests in the entire country, the divisions between all the sects in Lebanon for once do not seem to be matter. But are their common goals enough to fade away their differences? And how do the Syrian refugees relate to this?

Home to two of the largest refugee influxes of the last decades, Lebanon is a country coloured by people with many different backgrounds, ethnicities and religions. Lebanon’s character as a mosaic of religious and ethnic groups can be traced back to the defeat of the Roman Levant and the start of the Islamic rule, in the early 7th century (Harris 2017, 60; Nisan, 2015, 7). It was only in 1920, after the end of the Ottoman rule, that the French created the political entity of ‘Greater Lebanon’ – the modern Lebanese territorial state. Ever since the French troops were forced to withdraw from the country in 1943 (Harris 2017, 62), independent Lebanon has been marked by interchanging periods of turmoil and political stability. Merely a couple of years after its independence, the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1948, 1956 and 1967 drew hundreds of thousands Palestinian refugees to a country smaller than the Netherlands, adding even more colour to the Lebanese pallet (UNRWA 2006; Suleiman 2006).


The relative peace within the expanding Lebanese mosaic, with the Maronite and Orthodox Christians, and Sunni and Shia Muslims as majorities, came to an end with the Lebanese Civil War. From 1975 until 1990, the country’s religious and political groups were fighting intermittently, deepening the divides between the different confessional groups (Randa Nucho 2017; Nisan 2015). What appeared to be a period of stability, was followed by the 34-day war with Israel in 2006, which caused further social and political fragmentation (Harris 2017, 56-63). In more recent years, Lebanon has seen an increase in sectarian violence with overspills from the Syrian Civil War, as for example the eruptions of violence in Jabal Mohsen, a neighbourhood in Tripoli (UN Habitat and UNICEF 2o18; Lefèvre 2014).   


When in October 2019 – as a result of tensions that have been rising along this background – the Tax Intifada commenced, thousands of Lebanese took to the streets to protest yet another imminent tax rise, while accusing the government of decade-long corruption, and demanding a resignation of the entire parliament (Al Jazeera 2019). In order to understand the current tensions in Lebanon, it is crucial to take a closer look at the political and economic situation shaping the country.

Sectarian politics and services
Lebanon is currently being ruled by a multiconfessional parliament, in which the power is shared between people of different faiths. For Lebanon, this means that – amongst other rules – the President has to be a Maronite Christian, the Speaker of the Parliament a Shi’a Muslim and the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim (Randa Nucho 2017, 12). Sectarian governmental institutions have been serving as mediators of state resources for decades. Within this politicized sectarian, identity “individuals mobilized ethno-religious sectarian affiliations in order to obtain resources and services from political parties and religious institutions in the early 1970s” (Randa Nuncho 2017, 6). While in the broader political system secular parties, as the Lebanese Republican Party, do exist, it remains a struggle to fight the hegemony of the traditional political parties (El Kak 2019). 


Added to this are the problems the government has not been resolving: Lebanon ranks 138 out of a 180 in the Corruption Perceptions Index (Transparency International 2019) and it is the third-most indebted country in the world, after Greece and Japan, with around forty per cent of its annual government revenue going toward servicing debt (BBC 2019). These major country-mismanagement issues led (amongst others) to daily power cuts, no train transportation system (but there is a Railway and Public Transportation Authority, with still paid employees (Baaj 2002, 110), and insufficient waste management country wide (HRW 2019). 

This all means that the Lebanese political system works in two contrasting ways: it represses extreme diversifying opinions from developing, and it also prevents disagreements from being resolved (Cleveland and Bunton 2009). With not much space to move left or right in traditional parties, more and more voices are currently being heard chanting for hardcore political reform: a new political system.

With the current protests, history is being written at this very moment. For the first time, people from all religions and backgrounds are taking to the streets together, in unity against their common enemy: the government. But is it really true that the current protests unite people from all the Lebanese ethnic and religious mosaic? Recent field research, conducted by the authors, paints a different picture – one where the Syrian refugees are struggling to find their place within the rambling political system. In a country of about 6 million people, Lebanon hosts an extra 1 million registered Syrian refugees (on top of the already in Lebanon residing Palestinian refugees) (UNHCR 2019). Their presence comes oftentimes in sharp contrast to the Lebanese citizens; the situation in Bourj Hammoud, a suburb of Beirut, is an interesting example of this. 

Bourj Hammoud: a sectarian mix
About 25 percent of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon reside in or around the capital Beirut (UNHCR 2019). Beirut’s eastern suburb Bourj Hammoud is known to host many Syrian refugees: within Nabaa, a specific area within the suburb, 63% of the population is of Syrian descent, as opposed to 33% with Lebanese origins (UN Habitat 2017). While Bourj Hammoud is generally referred to as the Armenian neighbourhood, the area is densely populated and accommodates low income population groups with diverse religious, ethnic and political backgrounds (UN Habitat 2017, 3).


The 14-year old Aisha* is caught in the middle of all this, as she is living in Bourj Hammoud. She is from Aleppo (Syria) and moved to Beirut six years ago, with her parents, sisters and brother. They have only been living in Bourj Hammoud for a year now and have often been subject to discrimination. Together with her siblings, Aisha has applied to various public schools, hoping to enter into the education system again. This attempt has however been without success; they have only received rejections so far. The reasoning: they are Syrians, and Lebanese schools do not accept Syrians at the moment. Motives for this seems widespread; schools are overcrowded, there is not enough teaching capacity (Ahmadzadeh et al. 2014), or, as according to Aisha: the school does not want to encourage them to stay. It makes her sad and angry that it is so difficult for her and her siblings to attend school and live a more normal life. While talking about this, she indignantly shakes her head and says: “School is a fundamental human right, isn’t it?”. Since last February, she’s been attending informal education at the Mouvement Social’s education center in Bourj Hammoud. While Aisha is very happy that she can continue studying, she is now only receiving lessons in English, Arabic, mathematics and life skills; less subjects than she would receive in formal schools.

Maher’s* (14) story provides another example of the opposition that these young refugee children have to deal with. Maher seems confident when he sits down for an interview and starts explaining that he has been living in Bourj Hammoud since he was one year old. While he is originally from Aleppo, he does not remember living there. Just as Aisha, Maher attends informal education at the MS education centre. He however attends an adjusted program, and only comes to class twice a week – the rest of the week he works in a small shoe shop. He needs to, because his family needs the money. When we ask him if he feels safe in the neighbourhood, Maher falls silent. Then, out of the blue, he explains that his family is Christian and not Muslim, because that is the ‘true religion’. He shakes off our questions concerning his clearly Muslim name and makes it clear that the church and his Christian friends are what mean the most to him.  

Later, in a conversation with one of the psychologists at Mouvement Social, it becomes clear that Maher has not been telling the truth. He has only been living in Lebanon for 5 years and he is not Christian, but Muslim. Apparently, it is quite common in Bourj Hammoud for children to not reveal their Syrian, or Muslim, origins. Being a Syrian Muslim in this predominantly Christian area is complicated. It might be safer not to share this. The stories that Maher and Aisha tell, represent lives that are in sharp contrast to the Lebanese citizens living in the Bourj Hammoud, and within the wider country.











Marginalizing and condemning

Throughout the whole of Lebanon, Syrians have been thrown into a state of illegality, impacting their accesses to health care, services, travel out and through the country, and basic human needs (Fakhoury and Abi Raad, 2018). Not wanting to jeopardize their own places in power, the Lebanese government severely restricted the rights and accordingly the opportunities for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. One of the reasons for this is the fact that “policy-makers have been concerned with the extent to which the settlement and potential naturalization of refugee communities – such as the Palestinians who have fled to Lebanon since 1948 – could impinge on the formula of sectarian power sharing” (Fakhoury and Abi Raad 2018). 


Wanting to frame the situation as a ‘impermanent’ one, Syrians have been depicted by the government and the media as temporary guests (Fakhoury 2017) whom the Lebanese people need to be wary about. In line with this, a poll in 2013 showed that Lebanese citizens now perceive “the Syrian refugee issue to be a threat to security and stability” (Christophersen et al. 2013). Even though clashes between Syrian refugees and Lebanese have seldom been reported, “tensions have occasionally erupted, fueling anti-refugee sentiment and triggering fears of domestic polarization over the refugee issue” (Fakhoury and Abi Raad 2018). Anti-Syrian banners have been widespread throughout the country during the 2018 elections, accusing them of stealing jobs from the Lebanese population, while Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has been spearheading a new campaign to send Syrians home for some time now (McKernan 2019). 


Countering the grand narrative

This ‘securitized refugee policy’ the Lebanese government is executing, is merely one side of the Lebanese coin. Civic and community-based organizations and (international) NGOs have been standing up as challengers to the negative portrayal of the refugee population (Muller 2017). Conflict resolution trainings are set up to work through concerns, and Syrian and Lebanese collaborate in projects that benefit both groups in the community (Rivera 2019).


Through expanding the narrative of peaceful coexistence and trust-building between Lebanese and Syrian people, their goals are to question the dominant view that refugees constitute a threat to Lebanon’s economy and political sphere. In the current protests throughout the country, one of the main focal points is to form a ‘united front’ covering all sects and religions (Yee 2019). What these efforts will materialize into will highly depend on the government’s and media’s stand and voice in the matter. And in how far the Lebanese and Syrian people will let those voices drive their ideas and actions; to further build up a non-sectarian Lebanon or to let the regime throw more fuel on the fires. 


The consequences of the protests for the lives of Syrian refugees such as Aisha and Maher will most likely only become clear after the end of the protests. The question remains if they, their needs and voices, will be incorporated into any possible changes that will come along. For now, the undeniable contrast between the Syrian refugees and the Lebanese citizens remains strong. Together in unity as all people in Lebanon for now does not seem to include one-fifth of their current population. 


About the authors

Laura Sofie van der Reijden is an anthropologist and journalist.  She has done research in Caïro, Atlanta, Istanbul and the Middle-East. Her work has been published by Parool, NRC and AD.


Marije Renate Luitjens is a PhD researcher on Peacebuilding and Resilience at Dublin City
University is also a and freelance advice consultant on peacebuilding, transitional justice

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A piece on the influence of politics on the connecting and dividing force of music


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Music is often looked upon as the force that unites all – it connects people all across the globe and gives us a sense of belonging; it brings us closer together and creates a community-feeling. Think of national anthems, for instance, which contribute to a sense of national identity and pride. Simultaneously, music can create distance between those who do and those who do not share the same characteristics, for example in terms of cultural background, age and social class. However, the importance of scale is an aspect that needs to be taken into account when deciding whether music connects or separates people in a certain situation. 


A good example of this phenomenon is visible in British history. During the 1970s, the United Kingdom was dealing with an everlasting crisis no one seemed to have an answer to. When Margaret Thatcher, also known as ‘The Iron Lady’, entered the political arena as Prime Minister, she introduced policies that would change Britain for good. Thatcher’s mission was to tackle the ongoing stagflation – growing inflation combined with rising unemployment. As she called inflation “the parent of unemployment”, she prioritised controlling inflation (BBC, 1980). Thatcher successfully managed to decrease inflation to 5%, a number previously peaking up to 25%. This was achieved through a policy of Monetarism, which included higher interest rates, higher taxes and cuts in public expenditure. This also meant many manufacturing firms would no longer receive state subsidies. These measures, introduced to stabilise the economy, coincided with mass unemployment, exceeding a number of 3 million people. The unemployment predominantly affected people working in the industries, as many of these industries were no longer fruitful or competitive in the modern economy (Economics Help, 2018).


An example of an industry which was fatally struck by the policies of the Iron Lady was the coal mining industry. For decades upon decades, the coal mining industry provided most of the United Kingdom’s electricity. For industrial cities in the North, including cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield, mining and other industries were their main source of income. As other countries now produced these commodities for lower prices, Britain’s market was no longer interesting. The closing of these industries meant that these cities were now deprived of their main source of income and many of their inhabitants were now unemployed. Thatcher’s announcement concerning the mine closures led to widespread strikes by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), a very powerful trade union at the time. This 1984 Miners’ strike is now known as one of the most violent strikes in British industrial history. (BBC, 2008)


Thatcher’s policies divided the entire nation. She was a friend to dictators and the middle class, and an enemy to the working class. The middle class were mostly thankful for the transformation Thatcher had brought to the country. Amongst the working class, however, Thatcher was known as ‘the milk snatcher’, after famously cancelling school milk during her time as Education Secretary in the 1970s. As Prime Minister, she would snatch more than just milk from the blue-collar workers. (Moore, 2013) The deindustrialization, which mostly happened in Northern cities such as Manchester, and cuts in public spending, hit the poor working class harder than anyone else. Since mining and other physical jobs often required no qualifications, the unemployed were now left hopeless. (Dean, 2013)


“Class is a communist concept”, Margaret Thatcher once wrote. She believed in the individual, rather than the community. This was rather remarkable, as the distance between the classes seemed to grow. Social inequality in the United Kingdom was now more apparent than ever. (Jones, 2011)


The working class had been destroyed, leaving them with countless social issues they would later be blamed for themselves. Thatcher’s deindustrialization managed to wipe out the working-class identity of industrial cities, and left them in deep deprivation. The mines were the heart of the city, with close communities built around them. People were proud to be part of the working class. The trade unions such as the NUM surrounded them with pride, strength and solidarity. After the mines closed, the working-class spirit was nowhere to be found – the pride in being part of the working class was gone. (Jones, 2011)


The divide was also visible geographically. Most of the deindustrialization process and mine closures occurred in the North. This led to an overwhelming reaction of resistance from the workers. As the South experienced very little negative consequence from Thatcher’s policies, they weren’t as resistant. This caused a geographical divide which is visible to this day. Northern working-class cities such as Manchester and Liverpool vote Labour, whereas most of the South usually votes Conservative. This becomes very clear when we compare the location of Britain’s coal mines to the election results of 1983. These industrial cities were, and are still known, for their hate for the Conservatives. Liverpool even went as far as banning right-wing news tabloid The Sun. (Brett, 2017)







During the 1970s, tension between the government and the working class resulted in a reaction of anger and protest; emotions which were expressed in songs with three simple power chords – a genre we now know as punk. The punk genre criticised subjects such as the English monarchy. As The Sex Pistols sang in their hit ‘God Save the Queen’:  “There’s no future/In England’s dreaming”. After Thatcher became Prime Minister, and punk vanished to the background, there was a change in music. As a result of Thatcher’s plans, the North-South divide was now also visible in music. In the North, where deindustrialization was in full swing, the reaction of protest continued – the post-punk genre was born. In the South, where Thatcher had less of a negative impact, her government resulted in an apolitical reaction. Music was less centred around politics, and genres such as the New Romantics came up. This genre was characterised by glamorous and flamboyant musicians, with music mainly focusing on nightclubs. The New Romantics included bands such as Duran Duran, Culture Club and Spandau Ballet. Their lyrics often contained no political message, unlike the post-punk genre. (Gais, 2013) Post-punk was characterised by bands such as The Smiths, with political songs such as ‘The Queen is Dead’ and their singer Morrissey with the song ‘Margaret on the Guillotine’. (Lynskey, 2013) The Jam’s ‘A Town Called Malice’ also focused on a struggling society, and The The’s ‘Heartland’, showed exactly how the Northerners felt about Thatcher: 

“This is the land where nothing changes

The land of red buses and blue blooded babies

This is the place, where pensioners are raped

And the hearts are being cut from the welfare state

Let the poor drink the milk while the rich eat the honey

Let the bums count their blessings while they count the money”


The musical North-South divide, interconnected with voting behaviour, shows us how politics can separate people in terms of musical genres. In the South, punk and post-punk wasn’t as appealing, as they could not relate to the struggles these industrial communities were facing. This is an example of how music influenced by politics can create distance between people on a national scale. It also creates distance between social classes – the working and the middle classes. However, it can connect people within social classes, and also age groups. Music brought people, mainly the youth, within the working classes closer together, as the protest songs were something they could closely identify with – it gave them a sense of hope and strength, as they saw their future crumbling into pieces. These two examples stress the importance of scale when looking at the power of music. On a national level, it caused a divide, whereas on a more local level, it brought people closer together.


Life under Thatcher’s government was devoid of any hope. For the working-class youth, music functioned as an outlet for emotional expression – it was a coping mechanism. They held on tightly to social communities, to remain strong and fight against Thatcher’s oppression together. In an interview with Woman’s Own in 1987, Thatcher said “There’s no such thing as society” (Woman’s Own, 1987), but the youth were about to prove her wrong… 


About the author

Roos Capel is a first years anthropology student.  She is very interested in England and she loves to make music, that is why she has done her high school research on this subject.  

Location of coal mines                           Election map (1983) 

in the UK (1994)                                     Red: Labour, Blue: Conservative

                                                               CC BY-SA 4.0 


Thank you very much for reading our first edition of the ICA. We made it with pleasure. If you have questions about certain articles, writers, copyright or do you want to participate in the next edition of the ICA? Please contact us by mail or Instagram, or contact Study Association Itiwana. Next edition will appear in July 2020 and is about Medical Anthropology.  

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ICA Editorial 2019-2020


Being an Online Celebrity

Abidin, Crystal and Thompson, Eric C. 

2012 Cyber-femininities and Commercial Intimacy in Blogshops. Women’s Studies International Forum 35(6): 467-477., accessed 21 June 2017.


Baym, Nancy K.

2010 Personal Connections in the Digital Age. Cambridge: Polity Press.


Duffy, Brooke

2015 Amateur, Autonomous, and Collaborative: Myths of Aspiring Female Cultural Producers in Web 2.0. Critical Studies in Media Communication 32(1): 48–64., accessed 21 June 2017.


Duffy, Brooke and Hund, Emily

2015 ‘Having it All’ on Social Media: Entrepreneurial Femininity and Self-Branding Among Fashion Bloggers. Social Media + Society 1(2): 1-11., accessed 21 June 2017.


Dyer, Richard 

1998 Stars. London: BFI Publications.


Dyer, Richard

1986 Heavenly bodies: Film stars and Society. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan.


García-Rapp, Florencia

2019 ‘Come join and let’s BOND’: Authenticity and Legitimacy Building on YouTube’s Beauty Community. Journal of Media Practice.


García-Rapp, Florencia

2017 Popularity Markers on YouTube’s Attention Economy: The Case of Bubzbeauty. Celebrity Studies 8(2): 228-245., accessed 21 June 2017.


Hearn, Alison and Schoenhoff Stephanie

2015 From Celebrity to Influencer: Tracing the Diffusion of Celebrity Value Across the Data Stream. In: P. David Marshall and Sean Redmond (eds.), A Companion to Celebrity. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley. Pp. 194–211.


Lange, Patricia G.

2014 Kids on YouTube: Technical Identities and Digital Literacies. Walnut Creek, Calif.: Left Coast Press.


Lovelock, Michael

2017 Is Every YouTuber Going to Make a Coming Out Video Eventually? YouTube Celebrity Video Bloggers and Lesbian and Gay Identity. Celebrity Studies 8(1): 87–103., accessed 21 June 2017.


Marwick, Alice E.

2013a They’re Really Profound Women, They’re Entrepreneurs: Conceptions of Authenticity in Fashion Blogging. Unpublished paper from the Seventh International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media.


Marwick, Alice E.

2013b Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.


Senft, Theresa M. 

2013 Microcelebrity and the Branded Self In: J. Hartley, J. Burgess, and A. Bruns, (eds). A companion to new media dynamics. Chichester: Wiley 346–354.


Strangelove, Michael 

2010 Watching YouTube: Extraordinary Videos by Ordinary People. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.


Tolson, Andrew

2010 A new Authenticity? Communicative Practices on YouTube. Critical Discourse Studies 7(4): 277–289., accessed 21 June 2017.

The Destabilised Boundary

Barth, Fredrik

1969 Ethnic Groups and Boundaries - The Social Organization of Culture Difference. Oslo: Scandinavian University Press.


Bateson, Gregory

1972 Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Bantam Books.


Bauman, Zygmunt 

2004 Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcasts. London: Polity Press.


Bhabha, Homi

1994 The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.


Cohen, Anthony P. 

1994 Self Consciousness. London: Routledge.


Douglas, Mary