“THE IDEA OF ‘REVERSING THE GAZE’ CAN BE VERY HELPFUL, IF IT IS RELATED DIRECTLY TO GLOBAL AND LOCAL POWER RELATIONS, ALSO FOR HIGHLIGHTING THE AMBIGUITIES AROUND DECOLONIZATION.”
Peter Geschiere is Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology (University of Amsterdam). He is a fellow in the “Reversing the Gaze“ project.
Can you explain your research area in three sentences?
I am an anthropologist, but also a historian. I undertake field-work in various parts of Cameroon and elsewhere in West Africa. Central topics in my work include local ways of dealing with state formation, decolonization, ’’witchcraft’’ and lately my focus lies on homophobia and freemasonry.
How did you become involved in this project as a fellow ?
I got to know Elísio Macamo from collaborating with him at the International African Institute (SOAS University of London), but also through his lectures and publications. I very much like his subtle approach to complex issues such as decolonization and reversing the gaze. It was therefore a pleasure to join this project and to get an insight into the various case studies.
Elísio asked me to participate in this project as my book on issues of citizenship, belonging and exclusion (Perils of Belonging: Autochthony, Citizenship and Exclusion in Africa and Europe, 2009) was based on this idea of reversing the gaze – looking at the Dutch suddenly using notions like autochthony, or allochthony from the longer history of these concepts in Cameroon and elsewhere in Francophone Africa. Generally speaking, I was intrigued by the concept of ‘reversing the gaze’, especially how it relates to power-relations.
What are you most looking forward to in this collaboration?
I look forward to seeing how this idea of ‘’reversing the gaze’’ will be related to empirical research, and also how this will connect to debates on decolonization. The idea of ‘reversing the gaze’ can be very helpful, if it is related directly to global and local power relations, also for highlighting the ambiguities around decolonization. At first, decolonization seems to be a self-evident notion, but it is important to go deeper into the ambiguities and complications that emerge as soon as we try to make it concrete in specific contexts.
What is your envisioned outcome of this project?
Anthropology should be about giving others a voice, which is why it is critical that diverse perspectives and positions in global networks are reflected. This is undoubtedly the case within this project. A danger for especially anthropologists is that “reversing the gaze“ inspires an obsession with self-reflexivity which can end up ‘muting’ the voice of the Other. “Reversing the gaze“ must be most explicitly in making other voices to be heard.
In this report, Lerato Posholi (researcher in the Reversing the Gaze project) discusses the workshop ”Keywords for India, and beyond? Enriching the Global Social Science Vocabulary” with Rukmini Bhaya Nair (Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi) and Peter deSouza (Goa University). The event was organized by Ralph Weber (Principle Investigator of the project) and Lerato Posholi as an inception workshop in the framework of the Reversing the Gaze project.
Keywords for India, and Beyond? Enriching the Global Social Science Vocabulary
On the 7th of May 2021, Prof. Ralph Weber and Dr Lerato Posholi organized a workshop with Prof. Rukmini Bhaya Nair (Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi) and Prof. Peter deSouza (Goa University). The workshop used Bhaya Nair and deSouza’s book «Keywords for India: A conceptual lexicon for the 21st century» as a point of departure for reflecting on the core question of whether, and how, certain keywords for and from India (e.g. guru or nirvana or policy paralysis) can apply or be used to study contexts beyond India. The discussion covered some of the central themes of the Sinergia project «Reversing the gaze: towards post-comparative area studies» on the politics of conceptual travel, theoretical challenges to using concepts beyond their context of origin, and broader concerns around the nature of comparison.
Two broad sets of critical insights were foregrounded in the contributions and discussions between invited speakers and participants. The first set of insights raised questions regarding the notion of ‹reversing the gaze›: what does it mean? Which gaze are we reversing? Why must we ‹reverse the gaze›? How do we ‹reverse the gaze›? Prof. Bhaya Nair highlighted that the notion of ‹reversing the gaze› commonly amounts to a call to study Europe just as Europe studies the rest of the world but proposed that ‹reversing the gaze› should go beyond this to inspire ways of seeing the world anew. She remarked that in their book, the placing of ‹big academic concepts› such as democracy and subaltern next to everyday Indian keywords such as balti (Hindi/Urdu for ‹bucket›) can provide new perspectives on the world. Prof. deSouza added a critical perspective on the notion of ‹reversing the gaze› by raising the question: «who is doing the gazing?» This question is loaded with topical issues about positionality and how it affects knowledge production.
The second set of insights surrounded the topic of concept travel. On this topic, the concern was whether all concepts can travel and what the conditions of possibility for concept travel are. Two key points were raised on this issue. The one point was that concepts can be deeply embedded in certain theoretical frameworks and socio-cultural contexts, making it difficult for them to be applicable outside their contexts of origin. The speakers emphasized that some of the keywords for India may be so embedded in Indian contexts that they are not applicable elsewhere, or may first need to be made fit for travelling, as had been the case with karma. The second point raised a word of caution against taking for granted that travelling concepts retain their original meaning in different contexts. Concepts, especially social concepts, tend to expand or change meaning precisely in their travelling. For example: the concept of human rights, some may say, has expanded and evolved precisely because the original conception of human rights has been challenged in applications of the concept in many different contexts.
Overall, the fruitful discussions from the workshops raised important questions that will help us do some ground clearing in the Sinergia project. These questions and insights call for careful clarification of what is meant by ‹reversing the gaze› in the project and an illustration of how this reversal of the gaze can produce post-comparative area studies.
This report was originally written for the monthly newsletter of the Institute for European Global Studies (University of Basel):
In a recent interview Ralph Weber, Principle Investigator in the Reversing the Gaze project, discussed his vision of a post-comparative philosophy with Nevad Kahteran (University of Sarajevo). The discipline, he says, should allow philosophers to be informed by a global outlook and use a variety of styles and conceptualizations from different traditions.
Weber seeks to address the issues of Eurocentrism and methodological problems in comparative philosophy. His book “Comparative Philosophy without Borders” (co-edited with Arindam Chakrabarti) analyzes previous approaches to comparative philosophy and offers paths towards post-comparative avenues.
In the run-up to the national vote on the Co2 law in Switzerland, a guest article in the Swiss weekly WoZ calls for the country to become aware of its role in the world and refers to the research project “Reversing the Gaze”. The author, Sindi-Leigh McBride is a PhD candidate at the Centre for African Studies of the University of Basel, with a guest article in WoZ (20 May 2021)
In this paper, three of our project team: Shalini Randeria (Fellow), Deval Desai (Principal Investigator) and Christine Lutringer (Researcher) demonstrate a set of unintended political and institutional effects of the emergency mobilisation of unspent social welfare funds under Covid-19.
This article was originally written for Global Challenges: