Special issues

Vernacular Humanitarianisms

Special Issue of the journal Social Anthropology 31(1)

Peer Review as Intellectual Accompaniment

Emergent Conversation No. 16, co-curated with Jennifer Curtis for the website of the Political and Legal Anthropology Review

Imagine a person writing a peer review. Perhaps you will picture a skeptical individual crushing scholarship just because they can. This is at least the popular image that circulates in social media groups such as “Reviewer 2 must be stopped!”: an angry person who inflicts pain because they do not (want to) understand an author’s argumentation. The sense of being misunderstood and wronged by a peer reviewer seems to be almost universally shared in all corners of academia. Even when acknowledging that the paper improved thanks to the peer reviewers, we can “remain somewhat bewildered by some of their comments” (Smith 2012, 61).

A different picture might emerge when we imagine a relationship between a supervisor and their doctoral student. These are people “linked by an umbilical cord,” I was told once by a scholar from the U.K. German language echoes the same idea: a PhD supervisor is called a “doctoral father” (Doktorvater) or a “doctoral mother” (Doktormutter), expressing an intellectual bond in the idiom of family intimacy. Just like any kinship relation, PhD supervision can go awry. But it is, in principle, supposed to be dialogical and nurturing, critical, safe for differences, future-oriented, enabling growth and maturation.

There is something structural here in how the relationship between thinking, hierarchy, and temporality is often imagined in the “Global North.” Many of us have been trained to express respect for our peers by thinking “against them”—by trying to poke holes in their arguments. This—let us call it a “courtroom” model of an intellectual exchange—can be stimulating. Learning how to separate an attack on the argument from an attack on the person and how to immerse yourself in the former can bring intellectual joy and also advance our arguments.

Yet “thinking against” is not the only way to pursue an intellectual exchange in academia. In the case of peer review for journal articles, it might not be the most helpful one either. When a peer reviewer engages in “thinking against,” this does not seem to bring intellectual pleasure. More often it seems to generate a sense of being wronged by the review. This is perhaps because “thinking against” is predicated upon an assumption of egalitarianism within a scientific community, while peer review is an exchange in which some participants have the power over others to decide whether to let their argument be published, affecting, even limiting, career trajectories and the visibility and accessibility of different voices and knowledges. For “thinking against” to bring intellectual enjoyment, the participants in an exchange should be equals in some fundamental sense; it should be possible to safely disregard socio-economic differences between them, including how experiences of sexism, racism, classism, coloniality, and precarity have shaped their lives and thinking. In practice, this is not the case.

The pandemic increased stress on authors, peer reviewers, and journal editors, pushing many of us to face the gap between how we usually imagine intellectual exchange in academia and the shifting demands of the world we live in. Conversations on the politics and practices of peer review and journal editing mushroomed over the last few weeks, deliberating on various kinds of approaches to creating sustainable change in the peer review system. The need to think about how to reorganize peer review so that it presents an opportunity for “thinking with” in the unequal, hierarchically organized world we live in is precisely at the focus of this PoLAR Online Emergent Conversation.


In the Name of the Daughter: Anthropology of Gender in Montenegro

“In the Name of the Daughter – Anthropology of Gender in Montenegro”, published as open access, edited by Čarna Brković, special issue of the journal “Comparative Southeast European Studies”

“The thematic section ‘In the Name of the Daughter’ argues that we can understand gendered practices in Montenegro, such as sex-selective abortion, only if we consider the complicated ways in which material and economic processes become intertwined with social and cultural logics, simultaneously reinforcing old stereotypes while creating new spaces for action and change. The special issue presented here suggests that the practice of gender in Montenegro is predicated on specific kinship and property relationships, which it also perpetuates, and that women in the country are neither as oppressed nor as free as they might seem from a liberal feminist perspective. Anyone pondering how to articulate criticism and how to encourage change to gendered practices in Montenegro should take into account how possibilities for individual as well as collective action are shaped by kinship relationality, inheritance expectations, and state and public policy on gender.”
edited by Čarna Brković, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/soeu-2021-2013

Grassroots responses to mass migration in Europe

Special issue of the journal Intersections. East European Journal of Society and Politics “Grassroots responses to mass migration in Europe”, co-edited by Čarna Brković, Antonio De Lauri, and Sabine Hess

2015 has not only seen a mass flight movement but also an explosion of helping hands of various kinds, by migrant networks, spontaneous volunteers, civil associations, local NGOs, and so forth mitigating the unfolding ‘migration reception crisis’. A conspicuous body of research focusing on such grassroots responses to mass migration, the role of volunteers and activism has been emerging since (Feischmidt at al., 2018; McGee & Pelham, 2018; Rozakou, 2017; Sandri, 2017; Sutter, 2020). This literature has emphasized important aspects of the broad migration receiving apparatus, which is not only constituted by governmental and inter-governmental actors but also by these practices of humanitarianism from below producing highly ambivalent and complex assemblage of power, hierarchies and moral entanglements.

The papers in this special issue illustrate the complexities of finding the right vocabulary— both descriptive and analytical—to explain how people living across Europe have responded to the recent shifts in the EU border regime. This thematic issue contributes to the ongoing lively debates on the relationship between humanitarianism, solidarity, and human rights in Europe. It does so by approaching the concept of ‘grassroots’ critically and from an ethnographic perspective.