How anthropology opens doors to study worldwide | Interview with Dr. Ulf Hannerz

How anthropology opens doors to study worldwide | Interview with Dr. Ulf Hannerz

We met with Dr. Ulf Hannerz to discuss soccer, immigrants, foreign news correspondents, and much more. Enjoy!

Top anthropologist Dr. Ulf Hannerz discusses his studies of Black communities in Washington, D.C., and Nigeria, of foreign news correspondents globally, of acclimatization of immigrant communities in northern Europe, of soccer’s impact on social interactions, and what these studies have contributed to the field of anthropology. Professor emeritus of social anthropology at Stockholm University, Dr. Hannerz talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

Just about every boy at least from little age, we know the rules of soccer and we can play soccer without much in the way of language skills, because it's basically a non verbal game, so I think you know this one of the kinds where people can get involved and interacting quite intensively with each other and gradually pick up the social skills that come through knowledge…” – Dr. Ulf Hannerz

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Interview with Anthropologist Dr. Ulf Hannerz

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

00:25How it started

Jed Macosko: Hi. I am Dr. Jed Macosko at and Wake Forest University. And today we have as our guest, a wonderful person from Sweden, professor Ulf Hannerz. And he is an anthropologist.

So can you tell us just a little bit about how you got started as an anthropologist?

Ulf Hannerz: Well, that takes us about 60 years back in time. Around 1960, the world was changing, and for one thing, a number of African countries were sort of coming into being as independent countries, leaving... Especially the British, and French empires behind.

And that I think intrigued a lot of people, and especially young people. And I managed to travel a bit in west Africa, especially Nigeria. And that was also about the time when I was starting as an undergraduate in college and without any particular sort of a commitment to careers beyond university.

I thought well, "Is there any subject department around here which can teach me a bit more about Africa? Or at least provide academic legitimacy for this kind of interest." And there were not many such fields in the Swedish universities at the time, the one I had found my way to was anthropology, called ethnography still at that time, and so I started there.

But the people there didn’t really teach me very much, because the teachers were mostly elderly curators in the state ethnographic musuem, and none of them had ever been to Africa, they were basically watching the museum collections.

But I stayed on and found my way through my own reading and made that my major, which I hadn’t originally intended. And by the time I got my undergraduate degree, I had realized that, well, there was more anthropology to be had elsewhere.

And so I applied for an exchange studentship and found myself soon enough at Indiana University in Bloomington, where there was an old established anthropology department, and a new African studies program.

And so in the year 63′ to 64′, I spent very happily in Bloomington. Picking up all kinds of socially different course work, spending a lot of time in the libraries. And so since then I kind of keep looking at Bloomington as one of my hometowns. I have some number of them, but that was very...

Also I should say, you know, the 63′ to 64′ year was an interesting year in the States. President Kennedy was assassinated, which I learned about on a Friday afternoon on my way to class. The spring of 1964, had a quite intriguing set of primary elections, and since then I’ve also been following American politics, which I certainly still do these days.

03:41Field work in Washington

Jed: They haven’t gotten any less interesting, so it’s nice that you can have that as a bit of a hobby.

So after you left Indiana, where did you go? Did you go back to Sweden to do a PhD?

Ulf: Well I went to... I went back to Stockholm for a year, and by virtue of my Indiana training I was put in charge of teaching the introductory course immediately, but then I was planning of course to go to Nigeria for my first field work, which did not happen at that point, because political conditions in Nigeria were really deteriorating and ended up with a civil War in the 60s.

So then I was lucky enough that one of my teachers at Indiana, who had by then moved on to Washington DC, heard about a position coming on as a project anthropologist for basically sociolinguistic and educational projects starting in Washington at the Center for Applied Linguistics.

And he suggested that I should be hired for that position, so I ended up instead doing my first field work in Washington DC. In a low-income black neighborhood, which again, were two extremely into... Again, volatile years in the States, toward the end of my stay in Washington, Martin Luther King, was assassinated. And there were upheavals in the streets and all that kind of thing, but I really enjoyed my time in Washington, and I keep going back to another of my hometowns, the neighborhood which I worked in, which was all black in the mid-1960s.

It’s now been totally gentrified. I can recognize the houses and say, "I used to go there." But the buildings have all been repainted, and they have much more elaborate locks on the doors for one thing and so on. But again these two years in Washington really... In a way... Again, made me as more of a professional anthropologist.

Jed: Interesting. Wow, fascinating.

So after those two years, did you have a PhD, or did you still had to get that?

Ulf: I got my PhD at Stockholm University. Really the thesis that I wrote about my fieldwork in Washington actually. And that at Stockholm University was regarded as a very odd thesis, they didn’t quite know what to do with it.

But anyway, I did get my PhD, and I’ve been in that department from around age 19 or something like that, till I retired from my professorship in 2007. I felt so much at home that... Even if I had sort of feelers and invitations about... I just felt that, well, I grew up in Stockholm, I’m very committed to that department in a way still. So I then got visiting appointments here and there in the States, for one thing, also in a few other places, but always returning home.

07:07Getting established

Jed: So as an anthropologist, are you known for your studies of Africans, African-Americans, or was that just the early part of your career?

Ulf: I think the study of Black America in Washington really established me and the thesis soon enough was published by a major university press. So it did very well in the US market and kind of contributed to my continuing connections to the US and to American anthropology.

I wouldn’t know how many times have I been to the States over the years in various places. But on the other hand, I also finally did get to Nigeria in the 1970s, several visits to one town in the ’70s and ’80s. And I found, actually, by reading an early Nigerian novel, I could identify this, by then still relatively small town which had grown up around a railway junction in the middle of Nigeria. The fact that it was there, because of the railway junction meant that it was not really rooted very much in a local society.

But lots and lots of people came from all corners of Nigeria to work on the railway and in the marketplace that grew up next to it and so on. It was very ethnically diverse for one thing. So I kept going there a number of times and formed a lot of good, close connections.

So I really was... I keep repeating this, Kafanchan, that’s the city or the town was named, became for a while another of my home towns. Unfortunately then Nigerian politics again started deteriorating by the late ’80s, ’90s, you know. They...

So the military regime that was there, was kind of a bandit regime and thus I think just too many anthropologists more or less withdrew from there, Nigeria fields at the time. I think by now, you know, things are better again, but I’m a bit old for that.


Jed: So you called this town a rail reduction or a rail...

Ulf: A rail junction.

Jed: What did you say it was? Junction, oh yeah. That makes sense. What’s the name?

Ulf: If you were going from one place to some more distant place elsewhere in Nigeria, you pretty much had to come through this junction town, because it was very strategically located right there in the middle.

Now it happens to be just a couple of hours drive from the current Nigerian capital named Abuja. But the decision to build a new capital in that area was made just before one of my visits, so I got somebody to drive me over there, and by then it was purely a savanna. Now I hear from friends who go there that there are six million people living there.

10:04Multi-sites study

Jed: Wow, my goodness. Well, anyway, it’s fun to hear about your story, and it does seem that it was really centered on Africa, Black American in Washington DC in particular, were there other topics that you branched out into during your...

[overlapping conversation]

Ulf: Well then... By the 90s, okay, so of course, in the middle of things in my department at Stockholm University, chairing the department much of the time, and so it was a bit difficult to just take off for a longer period of time. I as much had to come back and see how things were going and talk to my graduate students and whatever, once in a while.

…I've always been a news hound…” – Dr. Ulf Hannerz

But then something that became a real concern, I’ve always been a news hound, sort of reading newspapers and magazines and whatever. It would typically happen to me in the morning in Stockholm, when I was having breakfast, that I was listening to the news radio, and there was this reporting from the person called Asia correspondent.

So he might be discussing the Taliban, which was a group that was beginning to appear in Afghanistan, or street riots in Karachi, or whatever. And then he would sign off so-and-so, Hong Kong. What? How do you actually handle reporting on Afghanistan from Hong Kong, which is probably a long distance away.

So anyway, of course, as an anthropologist, where one would normally do very local studies, I was rather worried about the idea about being an Asia correspondent or an Africa correspondent or a Middle East correspondent.

But I got sort of curious about how do they do this? So I thought up a project on studying foreign correspondents, personal backgrounds, their routines, their ways of putting together stories and so on.

So my, in a way, final field project was what was then beginning to be called a multi-sites study where I spent some time in Jerusalem and some time in Tokyo, and some time in Johannesburg.

A little bit of time in Hong Kong, and that was very enjoyable really, because I think when I looked up these people to call them on the phone, and they might say, "Well, I’m very busy, if you come at 9:25, I may have 15 minutes to spare for you."

And so I got my foot in the door, and I think they suspected that, you know, an academic would tend to be critical of journalists. And so they thought I would probably be a nuisance. But I showed that I understood the circumstances where they were working, where they might have 1500 words for a complex story, or two-and-a-half minutes for radio and television.

Well, the people in Johannesburg frequently were African correspondents, which meant that they were responsible for covering 45 countries south of the Sahara, or something like that.

…I think I was doing therapeutical work with them, because they had all these problems and they hadn't really been able to talk to, or talk about them to anybody for quite some time, and here comes this understanding anthropologist…” – …

So showing that I understood the complexities of their work, and sometimes being able to give them greetings from some dear colleagues in another town somewhere in the world who they haven’t seen for quite some time, they became, in many cases, very friendly, and instead of these 15 minutes, I would still be there three hours later having a very enjoyable conversation, and sometimes I think I was doing therapeutical work with them, because they had all these problems and they hadn’t really been able to talk to, or talk about them to anybody for quite some time, and here comes this understanding anthropologist sort of. [chuckle]

The thing that worried them was, that as an anthropologist, I was not used to taking out a notebook and writing down everything that’s said, because that’s not the way an anthropologist would normally work. But when they pointed out that they were worried that I wasn’t taking notes, weren’t they saying anything interesting, sort of? So I began to take up a notebook, or so.


14:29Helping Sweden

Jed: Pretend to write something, right? [chuckle]

Well, that’s really interesting. So it’s interesting how your work as an anthropologist helped the people that you were studying. You said it was kind of therapeutic for them.

How would you say your different areas of research have helped the world in general? So your studies of black America in Washington, DC, Nigeria, these foreign correspondents. What has it added to your...

[overlapping conversation]

Ulf: Well, no, this is a tough question to reply to. I try to write in an accessible style, and I think over the years, one reason why that has been a consistent effort, is that I’ve been invited to speak to quite a variety of groups, not all of them academic anthropologists at all, but interdisciplinary, and sometimes also kind of on the margins to academia, and in Sweden in one period of policy making groups, not least in the period from, let’s say, the 1970s and on when Sweden was beginning to become an immigrant country, and so there was this discipline growing called anthropology and they were dealing with culture diversity, so maybe they can tell us something.

And so I think when I was in Stockholm in those years, there was a fair amount of this kind of public anthropology, as its now called, talking to policy makers occasionally, minister and so on.

Jed: And do you think you helped Sweden in some way embrace the cultures of immigrants who were coming? And was it any more successful, let’s say, than in Denmark where so many of the immigrants have created some tensions within Denmark? Are those also present in Sweden, or were you and your department able to help avoid some of those tensions?

Ulf: I think for a while, we may have been quite useful. Now I think I would be more worried. Well, for one thing, in 2015 when there were these great refugee streams crossing through Europe, Sweden was really quite well-meaning, and took in a lot of people. I don’t think the country has been quite so successful in really integrating them and making them part of Swedish society.

Very recently, just even the last few weeks here in 2020, there’s been a great deal of concern with organized and semi-organized crime, especially in the low-income suburbs that were built around 1970 and so on. And of course, by now I’m long retired. This is something that I keep reading about, and I really try to read up about it, but at my age being in the risk group, even for the pandemic, I wouldn’t go out and do a new field work, but I think at present, this is regarded as a pretty serious social problem.

And of course, it’s a very multi-faceted one, and so in the back of my mind I have these thoughts about, "Well, part of it is, you would have to start in school. Get young kids from immigrant parents more fully involved with Swedish society."

Then, well, from my Nigerian town study, I have this kind of weak spot for apprenticeships, and it seems to be that frequently when I do see immigrants from the Middle East, or Africa, or wherever who have gotten themselves successfully into Swedish society, these are in these kind of relatively small scale occupations where apprenticeships is a way to go about getting into a society.

The Turks who came to one Stockholm suburban in the 1970s now seem to be very well integrated. They seem to run a lot of epicerie, and doing small shops of various kinds.

But I think by now, I’m just afraid that this kind of organized crime, perhaps has the best apprenticeship system. Well, it’s, I don’t know. Clearly, there are occupations for which other kinds of training is an absolute necessity, but somehow apprenticeship, I mean having some mentor, some master who tells you in a very practical way about how to go about things, seems to me to be a very good reliable way of reproducing skills.

20:02Soccer and social skills

Jed: Yeah. That seems like a great solution. So I guess if you were younger, professor, you might spend some time like you did in Washington DC, but in this case, in some of the low-income suburbs that were built in the 1970s around Stockholm. And you would spend a little time there, and learn from the standpoint of an anthropologist, and then perhaps write things that would help policy makers and just the general public understand better how to integrate, how to deal with the tension that has resulted.

Is that what you would do if you were a younger man?

Ulf: I think... As I said, getting the schools to do a really good job in getting kids who are very young age opening up to Sweden, and frequently, of course, in these cases, you may have parents who find it difficult to really get to know this place, and I think Sweden is not a very open society in the sense that you will necessarily get to know your neighbors well and that sort of thing, so one has to make some effort, I think, to open up.

Here in this village, where I am in the summers, I remember reading about some soccer game between one team which had a very local name and the other team that it was going to play against, was named Alexander the Great. And I thought, "What?" Well, the team, Alexander the Great, I’m sure, well, depending on how you identify Alexander the Great, which is a bone of contention itself, they were most likely either Greeks or somewhere in the south Slav region, whichever that may have been.

Now I think getting young people involved in playing soccer, at least, well, it turns out that just about every boy, at least from a low age, would know the rules of soccer. And you can always play soccer without much in the way of language skills, because it’s basically a non-verbal game.

So I think this is one of the kinds of arenas where people can get involved in interacting quite intensively with each other and gradually pick up the social skills, the cultural knowledge that brings you into a society.

I don’t know how well these new low-income suburbs in Stockholm are doing with that but again, I think sports can be very useful in this case. I also remember recently when I went to a conference in Hong Kong and there were young Chinese anthropologists discussing their first field experiences, one of them had been to Saudi Arabia and found that these Chinese guest workers in Saudi Arabia played soccer with their Chinese hosts.

…you have to find the kinds of arenas of interaction which can bring people together.” – Dr. Ulf Hannerz

And that was one of the arenas of encounter between the Chinese and the Arabs, and so I think again, I was never very much of a soccer player myself, although I did take a great deal of interest in it. But you have to find the kinds of arenas of interaction which can bring people together. And I think with some of the absolutely major Swedish soccer stars come from this kind of immigrant background.

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Zlatan Ibrahimović, who I think played for a Los Angeles team for some time, and is now back in Milan, Italy. He came from one of these suburbs in Malmo, and might have been a youthful criminal if people hadn’t discovered his soccer talents, where he’s now a millionaire many times over.

23:58COVID and the scientific side of things

Jed: That’s wonderful. Well, it does seem like a good plan, a combination of going into the schools, looking at programs that are apprenticeship-like programs and using things like sports that everybody can enjoy. So that sounds like a good thing.

Now, my last question for you, Professor, is you have a dear friend, Thomas Eriksen in Norway, and when we were interviewing him, he was talking about some of the differences between the Scandinavian countries when it came to COVID. He mentioned that in Sweden, you tend to believe the scientists, and are sort of a technocratic society in some ways, and so that maybe was one of the reasons that you took a different policy in the beginning of the COVID pandemic.

Do you have any comments about that?

Ulf: Well, the pandemic is a very tricky thing. By the way, Thomas Hylland Eriksen is a very good friend, since decades back, and so I watched your interview with him and thought, "What can I add to what Thomas says? This was all so good."

But I think there’s been some difference in various ways between Norway, which was, I think, for a long time a more egalitarian society with less wealth to accumulate and so on.

But when it came to the early pandemic problems, I think Sweden has really handled it reasonably well after the first period. But what happened in the first period, was that there were too many people coming in and out of the homes for the aged, and some of these staff members who may have been temporary hires, lived themselves in very crowded accommodation. Many of them were actually from these immigrant groups.

There was one point being made in... I think, it may have been late March, or possibly early April, that there were too many Somalis in the early deaths in the Coronavirus in Stockholm.

That was precisely from one of these suburbs and they lived in crowded quarters, and then went to work in these homes for the aged, so that set in motion, I think, a very rapid spread.

Something that I found rather heartening in its own way, was that the alarm of what was going on with the Somalis in that suburb, that was voiced by the Somali Swedish Medical Society, and I thought, "Well, if there’s a Somali Swedish Medical Society, great! There certainly wouldn’t have been a Swedish Turkish Medical Association in the 1970s or something, maybe."

And since then, I think Swedes do take the advice of the government and the medical experts and keep the social distance and are generally fairly careful on their own, which I think goes back to the kind of society that Sweden has been for a long time, where we do have a certain trust in our government and expect them to be well-informed and mean well, and so from, let’s say, May and forward, the situation has not been all that bad.

And I think in a way… if you employ anthropological understanding from social networks, you might also get a better understanding of the transnational spread of this pandemic.” – Dr. Ulf Hannerz

I think early on it also happened that Sweden got too many people carrying the virus from their skiing holidays in the Alps and so on in February and March. And I think in a way, I also think that well, if you employ anthropological understanding from social networks, you might also get a better understanding of the transnational spread of this pandemic. But not even highly placed people in other societies like presidents and so on, don’t really have much idea of what works well.

28:18Sign off

Jed: Well, thank you so much, Professor Hannerz, for coming on our little program today and telling us more about the importance of using an anthropological perspective when it comes to helping immigrants get acclimated to a new society, and even helping with the pandemic and understanding the spread of a pandemic. So we really appreciate you coming on our show today.

Ulf: Well, thank you very much. I enjoyed it.

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