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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:

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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. 



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. 





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