Completed Research Projects & Supervised PhD Projects

Stayed at home. Men, children and the elderly within the context of female labour migration in Western Ukraine.

Since the early 2000s, due to increasing poverty and unemployment in connection with a supposed ‘care crisis’ in the West, more and more women from rural areas in western Ukraine leave their homes to work as caregivers or domestic aid in central or southern Europe in order to contribute to the livelihood of their families. Frequently, they leave their children and families behind. While both the situation of female labour migrants in receiving countries and their efforts to maintain transnational care relations with relatives via different forms of exchange are ethnographically relatively well studied, we still know very little about how the (labour)migration of women and especially their absence in their roles as mothers, wives and daughters affects the family members who stay at home. Thus, based on current anthropological approaches at the intersection of care, kinship and gender, the research project sets out to study ethnographically the situation of ‘left-behind’ fathers, children and grandparents. Previous research on the effects of female labour migration has primarily focused on the absence of women and mothers and the central role ascribed to them regarding emotional and material care for their children, husbands and parents. Analytically, I consider this focus on the perspectives of women and mothers insofar as problematic, as the ‘naturalisation’ of motherhood and related care expectations and responsibilities overshadow other actors who might be equally important in the provision of care. At the same time, care responsibilities are predominantly located in the realm of kinship and the consequences of care practices and kinship are considered essentially positive. My research project thus emphasises re-arrangements of care practices, local notions of kinship and family, gender responsibilities and the construction of belonging within the context of female labour migration, taking concrete care practices and consequential relations as a starting point for the production, maintenance or dissolution of different forms of ‘relatedness’.

Project Duration: March 2016 - August 2023
Funded by: Austrian Science Fund (FWF)
Project by: Ilona Grabmaier
Supervised by (First Supervisor): Tatjana Thelen

The workings of corporate social responsibility in the (re)configuration of contemporary societies

Corporate Social Responsibility as a case of moral transformation has been celebrated as the solution to world problems. CSR departments that are officially in charge of establishing morality in businesses organizations have been implemented into upper management. The CSR managers claim, that the ability to cross-cut between the seemingly different institutional contexts of modern society (economy, politics, society) is a prerequisite to be able to do this work and push CSR forward.

This PhD project draws on ethnographic research within a major business corporation in Turkey, operating in a particularly contested and criticized business sector. It deals with the translation of these societal and moral values into practices in business organizations and the role individual CSR practitioners play in these practices. CSR is therefore conceptualized as a moral economy to reflect the continuous (re)negotiation of meanings, moralities and interests within organizations  across contradicting and manifold institutional contexts. The boundary work of actors at top management level, in supply chain audits, international project meetings and other internal CSR activities serves as a lens through which the conceptualization of society at large can be explored. The project is located the disciplinary intersection of organizational, business, economic and political anthropology, with a special focus on value studies, moral economies, gifts & rights and care studies.

The PhD project is part of the DOC-team project "Practicing Values - Valuing Practices" funded by the Austrian Academy of Sciences. In this project, Deniz Seebacher, Barbara Stefan and Andreas Streinzer are researching renegotiations of so-called economic and moral values in three contexts (the others being the effects of austerity measures in Greece and Social Movements for Democracy and Distributional Justice in Austria) and from the perspective of three disciplines (social and cultural anthropology, business anthropology, political sciences).

Project Duration: Oktober 2014 – Oktober 2017
Financed by: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften (ÖAW), DOC-team
Project by: Deniz Seebacher
Supervised by: Tatjana Thelen (Co-Supervisor: Ståle Knudsen, University of Bergen)

Enactments of participation: Performing state, civil society and family in an ‘ecological village’ in China

Agricultural pollution, food scandals, income inequality and challenges associated with massive outmigration from the countryside regularly hit the headlines in China. Since the early 2000s, the Chinese state and social movements have turned their attention to the countryside again. Christof Lammer’s dissertation project deals with questions of transforming state relations in the context of rural development in China. It is based on one year of ethnographic fieldwork in a self-proclaimed ‘ecological village’ in Sichuan Province and the related food network. The dissertation studies how actors translate globalized ideas of the ‘New Rural Reconstruction movement’, such as participation, community, cooperation and sustainability, as well as the state campaigns to ‘construct a new socialist countryside’ and to ‘build an ecological civilization’ into local practice. In this ‘stategraphy’ – an ethnographic approach to the state – Christof asks how boundaries between ‘the state’ and ‘civil society’ are negotiated, constructed and undone in enactments of ‘participation’. A focus on boundary work in these performances is important to understand how the state is reproduced and transformed when officials and other citizens enact the ecological, care and bureaucracy.

Funded by: University of Vienna (February 2013 – July 2017), Marietta-Blau-Grant (September 2014 – September 2015), China Scholarship Council (September 2014 – June 2015)
Project by: Christof Lammer
Supervised by: Tatjana Thelen

Kinship and Politics: Rethinking a Conceptual Split and its Epistemic Implications in the Social Sciences

For a long time the decline of kinship in the course of Western history seemed so certain that there was little interest in research on this topic outside the study of "traditional" societies in anthropology and history. Central to Western self-understanding in the twenty-first century is that kinship plays no role in politics. This separation has a long genealogy and enormous consequences for research and policy-making. Particularly in the domain of modern politics the presence of kinship was (and is) seen as something to be exorcised in order to establish rational administrative systems, mobilise colonial populations and even destroy terrorist infrastructures. It is behind distinctions between modern and traditional, between Western and "Other" societies.

The aim of our research group is to revisit this conceptual division between kinship and the state. Our research begins with a re-examination of the categories of "politics", "kinship" and "family" in anthropology and history. Both disciplines have contributed decisively to the opposition of state and kinship, change and structure, the West and the Rest. Yet recently both disciplines have been questioning the epistemological foundations of these oppositions, each in its own way. The results of their critiques have largely remained within the respective discipline, while a broader interdisciplinary setting is needed to develop their implications for the social sciences at large.

We wish to explore the implications of viewing non-Western societies through the lens of kinship, and of excluding kinship from the analysis of Western societies, as has been common since the nineteenth century. A critical examination of the epistemological history of disciplinary categories will be combined with empirical findings about the work that these categorisations still do today. Within this frame we intend to develop new approaches for using kinship as an analytical tool in the study of current questions of belonging and the making and remaking of political order.

Duration: Research group 2016/2017 at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF) at the University of Bielefeld, Germany.
Funded by: University of Bielefeld via the Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF)
Convenors: Erdmute Alber (Bayreuth, Germany), David Warren Sabean (Los Angeles, USA), Simon Teuscher (Zürich, Switzerland), Tatjana Thelen (Vienna, Austria)

Between Institutions and Hearts: Dynamics of Need, Redistribution and Social Security in a Village from Northern Dobruja

In my doctoral thesis I analyze how the needy access livelihood resources on an everyday basis by appealing to the officials of the local state, to kinsfolk, and to the religious community. My ethnographic analysis takes the viewpoint of a village from Northern Dobruja (south-east Romania) in order to speak to broader issues regarding the mutual dependencies and influences between social support mechanisms, the manifold influences exerted on the everyday work of state bureaucrats, and the role of religion in shaping everyday practices of social support. Through the examples analyzed, I show that the help given to the materially needy by kin or by churchgoers cannot be analyzed in isolation from state-provided welfare benefits. Welfare allocation through state offices, in turn, cannot disregard the role that religious ideas play in state bureaucrats’ everyday work. I show that religious charity is a crucial pillar of village-level social support practices, and that an everyday discourse with roots in the Christian tradition (the discourse of the ‘heart’) shapes local-level resource redistribution across the social categories of genealogical kin, participants in church ritual, and state bureaucrats. The thesis brings to light dynamics of welfare provision within and beyond household units and sheds light on how individuals create on an everyday basis the welfare mix on which their survival depends. It thus critically complements recent analyses of welfare transformation in the aftermath of socialism, which have been overly focused on state-provided welfare.

Financed by: Volkswagen Foundation*
Project by: Ioan-Mihai Popa
Position at that time: PhD candidate at the Max-Planck-Institute for Social Anthropology and University of  Halle-Wittenberg

*Project “Local State and Social Security in Rural Hungary, Romania and Serbia”, Head of Project: Tatjana Thelen

Kinning interrupted. Growing up in state care in late socialist Hungary

While kinship studies is frequently about creating kin, this project looks at moments of interrupted kinning in three sets of relationships in state care: to relatives, to staff in children’s home and to peers. The state – as orchestrator of these relationships – shapes which ties are seen as important and which are discounted. This analysis will turn the attention towards the role of teachers, casting the gaze to the local school to reflect that children in care move within a wider community than the children’s home. This approach will be completed by an examination of the ascribed identity of children in care, particularly of Roma children. The project focuses on late socialist Hungary to see how care dynamics can be understood under state socialism within the context of recent high profile abuse cases in other European countries. Through narrative interviews with care leavers, case files and pedagogical literature, it identifies the limits and norms of legitimate violent conduct, contributes to a bottom-up understanding of experiences in care and reflects on the state’s involvement in the breaking of kin.

Hosted from: May - August 2014
Financed by: DAAD research grant
Project by: Jennifer Rasell
Position at that time: PhD candidate at the Centre for Contemporary History (ZZF) Potsdam

Rescaling States - Rescaling Insecurities: Rural Citizenship at the Edge of the Hungarian State

This research examined how the ongoing neoliberal state restructuring in Hungary affects rural areas through the lens of two remote villages and analysed the ways in which rural inhabitants/officials reposition themselves and their locality within the currently emerging state spaces. The capitalist scalar restructuring along with the post-1989 state decentralisation and accession to the EU has brought a variety of new opportunities for remote rural places, but has also produced manifold insecurities. The project utilised ethnographic methods to delineate the present form of these processes with a particular emphasis on the practices of local state officials in three crucial areas: social security, development and access to resources. The responsibilities in these areas are shifting from the centre to the local state and to individuals and their families, resulting in a rescaling of insecurities. The project examined the social processes through which state rescaling is taking place, the ways local officials/inhabitants cope with the consequent rescaling of insecurities and the ways these reconfigure the relationship between rural inhabitants and the state. The consequences of this state rescaling on social citizenship can be only captured by a spatially sensitive conceptualisation of citizenship, which integrates the experience of rural inhabitants. The project  proposed steps and analytical tools towards such re-conceptualisation. 

Financed by: Volkswagen Foundation*
Project by: Alexandra Szöke
Position at that time: PhD candidate Max-Planck-Institute for Social Anthropology und Central European University Budapest (last known position: Research Officer am Centre of Migration Policy Research, Swansea University)

*Project “Local State and Social Security in Rural Hungary, Romania and Serbia”, Head of Project: Tatjana Thelen

State Relations: Local State and Social Security in Central Serbia

This thesis explores how states actually work. My study ethnographically examines local state relations in a rural-urban region in central Serbia, defining the local state not as a bounded, but a grounded, concrete-complex network of relations from the sub-local to the trans-national scales of the state. Substantially, everyday practices in infrastructure, welfare and care provide the matters of concern for local state formation demanded by citizens, valued by state actors, and using up state budgets. Infrastructure work stands for the material promises, hope for the future, and (dis)trust people have in the state. Welfare and care embody the dialectics of inclusion and exclusion, belonging, and shifting solidarities. Formally, my relational approach to the local state along the four axes of embeddedness, boundary work, relational modalities, and strategic selectivity opens a critical vista on the concrete-complex processes of state construction, reproduction and transformation.

Keywords: anthropology of the state, care, infrastructures, local state, post-socialism, power, relational theory, Serbia, spatializing the state, welfare

Financed by: Volkswagen Foundation*
Project by: André Thiemann
Position at that time: PhD candidate at the Max-Planck-Institute for Social Anthropology and University of  Halle-Wittenberg

*Project “Local State and Social Security in Rural Hungary, Romania and Serbia”, Head of Project: Tatjana Thelen