Thoughts on ethnography and a slaughterhouse from the Annual Ethnography Symposium 2013

At the Amsterdam Ethnography Symposium, a full room of scholars, mostly anthropologists, is captivated by the charismatic speaker telling the tale of mass killing and normalization of such. The subject is the ethnography of a slaughterhouse. The element of story-telling is combined with stand-up comedy, when the presenter takes questions from the audience in the middle of the presentation, to add interactivity; there are elements of improvisation with the speaker radiating confidence, humour and the importance of the work he has done. And all with no notes, looking directly into the audience, interacting with it with skill, wit and charm. This is the scene from the closing keynote in the Ethnography Symposium that was different from other conferences I have attended. What was different was the grand emphasis on the element of story-telling,and the skill exhibited by presenters therein. It felt almost like in the story-telling place in Amsterdam where people gather to share their life experiences in a campfire-like atmosphere of Cafe Mezrab.

The talk of Tim Pachirat, an Assistant Professor of Politics in New School for Social Research in New York, was certainly the highlight of the conference, the literary and theatrical piece of art. He wrote a book based on his Ph.D. work at Yale under James Scott. The book is called “Every Twelve Seconds”. and tells us how we organize mass-killing in a modern society, how we create euphemisms to conceal its carnivorous nature, how we dislocate killing by separating the labour of preparing, executing and processing animals, and how the workers involved in different tasks of dealing with cattle in a slaughterhouse are prevented from socializing with each other. He posed a question at the end of his talk: “would it be different if you had to kill the animals which you so readily eat”?. And I can see why is this such a hard question to answer as it confronts people with the disliked thought of participating in a killing. A lot of food for thought.

However, his lecture also raised serious questions about the nature of the research he conducted. First, he has done covert research, not obtaining any consent from the workers of the slaughterhouse, and not disclosing his research identity. Although he argued that this was the only way to gain access, that may be seen unethical both towards his direct colleagues and the management of the slaughterhouse. Secondly, he has been depicting the scene, both in his notes and in his book (according to his lecture) in a non-sentimental way, that is, separating emotions, judgment or appeal to human senses such as disgust or excitement. I doubt the possibility of such endeavor of separation, let alone desirability in portraying an experience. One may go in depth in arguing for and against each of these points and that is not the point of this post.

What is worth mentioning, however, is that the book he wrote has a really interesting subject, and judging from how good a speaker Pachirat is, there is all ground to believe that he is also a prolific writer! I am looking forward to reading the book.

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