Institutional • 10 Apr 2024
Ethnographies in times of crisis(es)

Ethnographies in times of crisis(es)



Teaching staff Iscte

Researchers CRIA-Iscte

Two projects investigated the impact on the everyday life of political measures taken during the Troika and pandemic.

The Cuidado (Care) project and the Livepolitics project are two successive projects that, in a way, analyse the same theme: the impact of government measures on people's lives and their ability to react/adapt to them. How do they fit together?

Care was designed to analyse how relationships of caring for others (in a broad sense) are constitutive of social ties and, therefore, central to life in society. Our idea was to study how this willingness to care for others is central to everyday life in different social contexts in Portugal (urban or rural, migrants, different social status groups). When the project was approved in 2012, we were amid an economic-financial-social crisis, aggravated by the austerity measures imposed by the government as part of the Troika intervention. From the beginning of the restrictive measures (social, income and fiscal), it was clear that without the welfare state, many Portuguese families could only survive with the help of family, neighbours, friends and/or social solidarity institutions. This help is, in fact, a form of caring for others, and this is what we studied for three years: how interpersonal relationships of care guarantee the possibility of life in times of crisis. The research has focused on different regions of the country and different social groups (middle-class families, workers and agricultural labourers, migrant communities, prisoners and institutions). The next project, Livepolitics, continues the previous research but with a line of analysis focusing on politics and its effects. The period analysed goes back (2010-2020) to understand the background of Portugal's political, economic, and social situation. The changes in political orientation that have taken place in Portugal in a short time have implemented antagonistic measures concerning the welfare state, tax and labour legislation, and investment in health and education. These legislative changes are not mere abstractions embodied in the body of law; they profoundly impact people's daily lives.

What are the central aims of the two projects?

Firstly, to study the impact of successive legislative measures on people's daily lives, trying to understand how they build ways of coping, initially with the economic crisis and followed by the legislative changes that have taken place. What has happened to people's lives? Have they got better or worse? Have they gone back to the way they were before the crisis? While Care focused on studying the historical moment we lived through, Livepolitics covers the entire decade from 2010 to 2020. However, we have extended it to 2021 because of the importance of analysing the emergency legislative measures taken in response to the pandemic.

During austerity, the middle class has lost its quality of life and expectations of a stable and promising future.

How are the teams involved in this project structured?

In both projects, we covered several issues and worked in different regions of the country. It is why we set up large teams, which is different from the old idea of fieldwork being done by just one person. This way, we can conduct long-term ethnographic research in different regions of the country, focusing on different themes and producing knowledge with ethnographic density, depth, and a comparative dimension. We have ensured that our teams include researchers who specialise in the themes at the heart of the project and PhD students, Masters students, and sometimes undergraduates.

The ethnographic method involves researchers spending time in the field, immersing themselves.

Yes, it is what is known as "long-term participant observation". In other words, the anthropologist has to be in the field for long periods to become integrated into the daily lives of his or her interlocutors and, in this way, to understand dimensions of social life that questionnaires or direct interview questions cannot capture. The meaning of actions, reactions, relationships, behaviour, and emotions goes far beyond what is said about them. Realising the feelings associated with everyday experience, what a look or a bodily expression says, can be far more revealing than an answer to a question and may even contradict it. This kind of more holistic and experiential knowledge is the aim of anthropology.

Note also that this knowledge of social reality is no less objective because it is not "quantifiable". For example, when working with undocumented migrants, it is difficult to research without considering the time needed to build a personal relationship between the researcher and the interlocutors. Furthermore, being with people in daily situations makes us aware of how people live in the meanders of legality. Similarly, when we work on understanding how austerity measures impact families, in addition to identifying objective living conditions (salary, monthly expenses, dependents, monthly activities), we try to understand how people experience their living conditions and their changes are sometimes best identified in bodies, silences and emotions. For example, in the case of middle-class families whose income has been drastically reduced, the shame associated with having to rely on "charity" to survive, having to tell friends that they cannot do their usual activities because they have no money, not turning on the heating in winter to avoid wasting electricity, are dimensions that would be absent if we only used methodologies that were less immersive in the social relations we are studying. In the case of studying institutions, the method needs to be adapted. Studying prisons, for example, involves studying legislation, collecting documentation from various sources (reports from different organisations) and visiting prisons.

How do you proceed? Is there a working guide, or do you define it after you have been there, depending on the circumstances?

Both. Ethnographic work involves a close relationship with people over an extended time. It is, therefore, demanding to know from the outset whether people will agree to talk to us, how and about what, and whether they will welcome us to have us with them as they go about their daily routines, the different spaces and routes of their daily lives. We have clearly defined what we want: to understand the many and varied ways care is provided for others or how to deal with the legislative measures imposed by governments. In the field, we adapt to situations and use different methods. Close relationships take time to build; sometimes, what we thought was the focus of interest turns out not to be. It is one of the most exciting positions in anthropological research. We know what we want to investigate, but we do not limit the focus of our analysis from the outset. The issues we explore are sometimes those that emerge from the fieldwork as the most relevant. It was noticeably clear in the Care project when the crisis was affecting all aspects of life in Portugal, and the same has happened now with Livepolitics, where the legislative measures to deal with the pandemic have taken on an unpredictable weight, which we have analysed. It is crucial for our research when it is essential for people and their lives.

Statistics or quantitative data are not enough to find the reasons for the success or failure of specific policies. Through ethnography, anthropologists can imagine the concrete impact of policy decisions on people's lives.

What about the so-called middle classes? How did you arrive at this reality?

The social sciences have historically studied the exceptions and margins more than the middle classes, as they are often seen as more attractive. However, it is crucial to recognise that the middle classes represent a significant portion of society and studying them can provide valuable insights. By examining the 'normality' they embody, we can better understand the broader social structures and norms that shape our world. We always try to move away from this idea. In the case of the Care project, this position was crucial because it was clear that the period of solid austerity policies had deeply affected them.

For this reason, one of the areas in which we worked was with middle-class families in various Portuguese cities. We approached them through acquaintances and acquaintances of acquaintances - the so-called snowball method - and were able to access a substantial number of families for the research. Other times, we met people from these families at food banks and followed up on their cases. We found numerous cases of sudden unemployment for both members of the couple, and in these situations, the women played a more prominent role in ensuring the family's survival; often, the men took on whatever work was available. There are cases of families who, while relying on food banks, have managed to keep their children in public schools or to keep their actual situation from their friends. These efforts reveal the strategies used to preserve their identity-defining lifestyle, which they try to preserve even when they have lost the material conditions that allowed them to do so.

You spoke of the vital role of women. What about the role of men?

We cannot generalise, and we would point out that this idea must intersect with contextualisation of generation, class and ethnicity. However, we have found it more difficult for men to adapt and to be willing to 'accept whatever comes along' in these crises. The explanation is complex and time-consuming, but it has two dimensions. On the one hand, there is a strong notion that women are primarily responsible for caring for children and the family. Therefore, there is a huge moral responsibility to ensure survival. It is why women, more often than men, tend not to divorce themselves from domestic and reproductive responsibilities. On the other hand, and concerning the above, the continuity of the idea of the male breadwinner and work/profession as a defining element of a person's identity gives rise to a sense of failure when they lose the possibility of guaranteeing this role, which is constitutive of their identity. We, therefore, see less willingness to accept or seek alternatives.

The shock to the middle classes may have been more significant than the others.

In this context, the asymmetries become clear. Historically and cyclically, prisoners, migrants, and many fishing communities have lived in precarious situations and crises. However, the middle classes are now facing a new reality unfamiliar to them and can almost lead to an identity crisis. Since the second half of the twentieth century, the idea has become widespread that the future will be progressively better and bring better living conditions. Suddenly, this symbolic model has collapsed. Not only have middle-class families, who used to live in increasingly better conditions, lost their expectations of a comfortable future but they are also confronted with new and complex processes whose logic and language they not only do not master but which they also want to keep at a distance from the symbolic and identity perspective. For example, to receive institutional support, people must prove their poverty and precariousness, which everyone perceives as a form of humiliation, but in a particularly accentuated way because it is unexpected by those who never expected to be in this situation.

Are you concerned about getting your work to the decision-makers?

We do, and we are following a path that is not without its difficulties. We show the work and the conclusions. Decision-makers find it extremely interesting but do not always consider it because anthropological studies are often regarded as casuistic, too micro, or too qualitative to define public policies.

How do you get around that?

Things must be complementary. Statistics or general analysis are insufficient to determine why specific policies fail. The anthropologist's work can give a picture of the whole, but it details how people act and the motivations behind their decisions and actions. This knowledge shows how defined policies do not always produce the expected results. Different social groups interpret the same legislative measure differently (whether for regional, generational, ethnic, religious or class reasons), so it cannot be expected to have the same result across the population. In this sense, anthropological studies can bring efficiency to the entire system. However, we do not suggest that anthropological work should be helpful in political power or defining public policy. Knowledge of how people live in different contexts and historical moments is essential. The importance of scientific knowledge can only be measured in terms of its usefulness or applicability. Moreover, this is a fundamental principle for us, and we are all losing out because the obsession with utility is killing the social sciences worldwide.

How does this work fit into your academic career?

Antónia Pedroso Lima My research has always focused on understanding people's everyday lives and the processes by which they build their lives around those closest to them (family, friends, neighbours) and ensuring continuity. In other words, I have always worked on social reproduction, the link between family/domestic relations and the economic dimension of social life. This interest runs through all my research projects. Having started with fieldwork in Madragoa, what was supposed to be a study of a traditional Lisbon neighbourhood quickly turned into an investigation of the processes through which relationships within domestic and family units constructed the conditions of existence of people and the neighbourhood. Similarly, my doctoral research on Lisbon's elite families, who have owned large companies for more than three generations, focused on how the articulation between family relationships and ideas is linked to the economic strategies of the companies, becoming a central axis for the continuity of their large economic groups. Along these theoretical lines, I developed a project on contemporary family relations in Portugal, which structured the projects we have just been discussing. In other words, my entire academic career has been built on this link between studies of family relations and the economy, based on an intersectional analysis that crosses gender, class and generations in reflecting on social reproduction. The projects I have been involved in, the subjects I have taught, the academic exams I have taken, and the supervision of students and researchers have always fallen within this theoretical and thematic area.

Catarina Fróis My genuine interest is in policy and law - the impact of legislation on people's lives. I started by studying drug addiction and alcoholism. Then, I focused on security and surveillance. I tried to understand the tools available to deal with the problem of these marginalisation. And then I studied prisons. At the moment, I am studying domestic violence. After talking to men who have been imprisoned for crimes of domestic violence, after talking to women who have been victims of domestic violence, but in some cases also perpetrators of domestic violence, especially against their children, I still need to understand how the state apparatus and organisations deal with this reality.

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