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(2016-7) Making the familiar unfamiliar

By Callum Connor, Charles Cook, Sakira Intrabal, Alexandra Mcintosh, Alexandra Wood

Anthropology as a discipline is primarily concerned with the everyday practices and intricacies of daily life. Therefore, this facilitates an understanding of the political and managerial aspects of humanitarian expertise. Anthropological analysis also provides a bottom-up perspective on policy through making ‘the familiar unfamiliar.’ This means that anthropology questions normative forms of understanding the world and challenges taken-for-granted categories.

For example, the GMIAU case study of Mohammad, from Somalia, provides a context in which documents are a vital mechanism of power in policies around immigration. Mohammad’s family was obstructed from reunification due to their absence of marriage certificates, passports and DNA test certificates. Due to the context of an unstable government in Somalia, the absence of documents is commonplace. However, this meant that Mohammed and his family were not transferable legislatively. An anthropological analysis of this would use the concept of legibility, which attests to the needs of government to make persons ‘legible’ (manageable through categories) in order to govern and control populations. Documents are a mechanism for producing a social order that can be maintained by the state, an ‘efficient technique of power by means of which people can be fixed and objectified and, in the process, rendered more visible as objects of knowledge and targets of “care and control”’ (Foucault 1979 cited in Malkki 1995: 170). Furthermore, whilst documents may be conceptualised as a necessary means for the control of borders, they are also viewed, in the case of Mohammed, as a mechanism of power that offers the possibility of access to citizenship rights; a lifeline.

Malkki’s (1995) ethnographic analysis comparing a Hutu refugee camp with refugees that had integrated into a town illustrates how the legibility of refugees through documents enables the management of populations. The refugees in the camp had to maintain specific documents such as tax levies, whilst also being susceptible to surveys and censuses. In contrast, the refugees that had integrated into town life rejected this form of legibility due to not wanting to be categorised under the term ‘refugee’ and therefore avoided these bureaucratic forms of control.

Another example of unpacking normalised practices can be illustrated in the perpetuation of categories of vulnerable people. Anthropologists have analysed how the prioritisation of women seeking asylum who have been subject to violence, for example, creates a hierarchy of suffering and objectifies traumatic experience as a prerequisite for civil rights (Ticktin 2011). This could legitimise the status quo of the current immigration system, which arguably has inequality at the heart of it. Could this mean, then, that the GMIAU’s project for enhanced legal aid for women seeking asylum might inadvertently contribute to this dynamic?

By questioning taken-for-granted categories such as documents and vulnerable peoples, anthropology offers an alternative perspective for interrogating power dynamics and the means in which development and humanitarian work is embedded within political and societal dynamics. However, anthropology has been criticised for ‘sitting on the sidelines’. Could anthropology contribute to aid efforts in actual practice such as through localized interaction?

Bibliography: (2017). Case Studies – Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit. [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 Mar. 2017].

Malkki, L. (1995) Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory, and National Cosmology among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Malkki, L. (1992) ‘National Geographic: the Rooting of Peoples and the Territorialization of National Identity among Scholars and Refugees’, Cultural Anthropology, 7 (1), pp.24-44.

Ticktin, M. (2011) Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France. Berkeley: University of California Press.