The Anthropologist as Con Artist: An Interview with Sasha Newell

Photo by FaceMePLS on Flickr, licensed under CC BY.

This post builds on the research article “ETHNOGRAPHY IN A SHELL GAME: Turtles All the Way Down in Abidjan,” which was published in the August 2019 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Scott Ross (SR): This was a really engaging article, and I enjoyed watching the different frames shift as we follow the scheme (or schemes) at the heart of it. You describe it as a sort of meta-ethnography in settings marked by suspicion and deceit, but which might resonate with anthropologists working in other contexts. Do you think the ethnographic project is one that requires such nested frames of interpretation and double consciousness as we navigate insider status and observation at a distance?

Sasha Newell (SN): Well, yes. I guess I’d say that all social life is full of interpretation and double consciousness, and this perspective underlies much of what Goffmanian analysis is about. But more importantly, no matter how intimate and authentic the relationships we forge in the field, and I believe that for many anthropologists these are as real and as deep as any other social relationships in their lives, ethnography is of necessity built around nested frames of interpretation. Indeed, the hyphen in participant-observation signals the double consciousness at stake in the heart of our most central method, though it also echoes the self-consciousness in what I imagine to be all subjectivities, the Hegelian recognition of one’s own participation as seen by another observer. Anthropologists must simultaneously perform as insiders while thinking as outsiders, and our social reactions are at once naturally those of a human navigating genuine social relationships and simultaneously one step removed, perhaps at one moment tactically pushing conversations towards the topics that most interest us, at another reflecting upon how well a response matches our analytical understanding of the situation, and so on.

In this sense, like the con artist, the anthropologist is always attempting to define their interlocutor’s experience within a particular “reality under construction,” although typically the narrative is shaped after the fact in writing rather than as performative discourse in situ. As Roy Wagner (1975) revealed so lucidly in The Invention of Culture, the classic anthropological position is defined as an outsider who continually and implicitly frames their observations in opposition to their sense of self, simultaneously constructing (inventing) their remembered understanding of their own culture and the new culture they are participating in. The magic of anthropological writing is thus inherently built from the dynamic tension between these two consciousnesses. As Lila Abu-Lughod (1996) described in Writing Against Culture, the same double consciousness is at stake when studying “one’s own” society anthropologically. She described the plight of halfies who are at once “natives” and intellectually outsiders, but the same is true for what the francophone tradition (Abélès and Rogers 1992) refers to as the anthropologie du proche (anthropology of the near)—only now nested within another layer of self-consciousness. The anthropologist du proche is not only performing their most local social self while narrating their experience internally as an outside observer, but they are simultaneously a genuine insider who must perform to their anthropological colleagues (insiders of a particular discursive field) as maintaining the objective analytic frame of the outsider in the field. In this sense we might imagine each narrative frame as constituting a kind of “world” or version of reality that constitutes a “consciousness.” W.E.B. Du Bois (1903) conceived of double consciousness as a way to understand the doubled identity of the African American who participated simultaneously in the unmarked we of the United States and the marked, excluded identity of the African American forever imagined through difference. These are two narrative “containers” that delimit actions and future possibilities in different ways, and there is no reason to stop at two: each narrative constitutes its own defining features, its own subjectivity. Anthropology is the effort to bridge such narrative divides and the hierarchies that institutionalize them socially by imagining across them, but as the crisis of representation highlighted, the unworldly coherence of our own narrative productions produces still new containers no less dangerous than the ones they replace, and it is in this sense that we too are engaged in confidence games.

The hyphen in participant-observation signals the double consciousness at stake in the heart of our most central method, though it also echoes the self-consciousness in what I imagine to be all subjectivities.

SR: Reading this piece, I found myself thinking through some methodological questions. In a place where sociality is marked by trickery and suspicion, and where the mantra of c’est “non” qui envoie palabre (“it is no that causes fights,” Newell 2019, 304) leads people to say yes even when they don’t mean it, how did you navigate the basics of fieldwork? What does consent look like in your broader research, for instance, or at what point do you realize that someone has no intention of doing that interview they keep putting off? How does one build rapport in a milieu of deceit, especially when studying illegal activity? I was particularly impressed by you negotiating the right to document the forged documents which appear in this article!

SN: Indeed, I have spent countless hours waiting for people to show up to meetings (like many anthropologists, I presume). I would call, and my interlocutor would insist they were just held up, already on their way even, and they’d be arriving shortly. In most of these cases they never showed. Once in Paris, after an exciting conversation with an older sapeur about his “descents” to Brazzaville, how he had been filmed for national television and followed by a retinue of petits, I agreed to meet him the next day at the same bar. When I arrived at the appointed hour the bar was closed and it was raining. Due to my discomfort and growing chill, I called several times and in each case he told me he was already on his way, but after several hours I concluded he had no intention of coming, and indeed, I never managed to get him to interview with me, though I did encounter him several times in the future. It is important to recognize that when someone may either not have a visa or may be engaged in illegal activity, they have good reasons to be suspicious about the effects of engaging in social science at little personal gain. This was especially difficult in my fieldwork in Paris, where I could easily have been an undercover agent, but the anthropologist performs such a strange social role that they are frequently suspected of carrying unseen motivations.

In Abidjan the most complicated part of this, as in this article, was to keep myself from being directly involved in the crime itself. It was always a fine line between my interest in understanding how people managed to “make a living” and becoming entangled myself in the activity I wanted to understand. In this sense consent had to be negotiated in both directions, continuously, and improvisationally. This was made more complex by the fact that some actors exaggerated their criminality for the sake of prestige, while others wanted to mask their degree of involvement or position in the criminal hierarchy in order to protect themselves from exposure. But establishing rapport was not complicated, I just responded with honesty and genuine enthusiasm and was ready to join in whatever came my way, with the provision that I could avoid causing harm to anyone (including myself). I tried to stay around people I trusted as much as possible, aware nonetheless that there were often zones of deceit within those relationships of trust.

SR: Relatedly, I’m curious how you managed your presence between competing actors, chiefly Dedy and Boniface. Boniface’s attempts to mediate your predicament undercut Dedy’s plans, whether grand or improvisational. Did you have trouble moving between camps, as it were, or was your friendship like other close relationships in Abidjan, which you describe as continuing on in the face of transgressions?

SN: The relationship between Dedy and Boniface was certainly awkward. It was above all a problem of class distinction. While I play up the similarities of the two in some respects, they were operating at completely different socioeconomic levels and Boniface maintained a public respectability that was undercut by the presence of someone like Dedy, who was visibly from a different kind of social world. This dynamic was worsened by the fact that I chose to stay in Boniface’s home (at his invitation) and Dedy, who was essentially homeless at that juncture, asked to stay with me, ostensibly to continue to assist me in my research (though at times I would have preferred more distance). This meant that Boniface and his wife felt obliged to host someone they considered a bit unsavory and not entirely trustworthy. But there was also an older story: apparently, at some point when Boniface was making good money Dedy had approached him asking for help and he had refused, and Dedy still felt this had been a breach of the kind of moral economy I’ve described elsewhere (Newell 2006). He had felt that their relationship was intimate enough that in a case of wealth asymmetry such as they had, Boniface owed something to Dedy, and the denial of this was a denial of their relationship. Indeed, if their relationship could have been framed as patron-client I don’t believe there would have been such awkwardness. It is entirely possible there are more convolutions in the story that neither of them wanted to tell me. In any case, there was no question that each of them sought to gain preferential trust from me and implant suspicions about the reliability of the other. It was not easy to satisfy either one in this regard, as each would have preferred the other was out of the picture entirely. But perhaps this split helped keep me from getting overly involved in the schemes of either actor.

SR: In studying an everyday sociality of deception and suspicion, placed in contrast to North Atlantic preoccupations with sincerity, empathy, or transparency, you argue that we should think of culture “more as a field of contesting persuasions than one of de facto shared cosmology and values” (Newell 2019, 301). Is this its own sort of “turning” (Jorgensen 1990) for anthropologists, flipping how we understand the project of anthropology itself?

SN: Very nicely put! That is precisely what I am suggesting, though now I wish I’d thought of making that point about “turning” in the article. Mind you it’s not original, this is how I read Vološinov (1986)/Bahktin’s interpretation of language, in which he describes every word as an object of class struggle. But it is a point I also make in the conclusion of The Modernity Bluff: “By thinking of culture and communication as acts of bluffing, in which we con(vince) others into accepting our interpretation, our discursively produced reality, we are closer to an actor-centered model through which collective representations are built as well as destroyed” (Newell 2012, 255). It’s not that anthropologists have ignored the role of persuasion in building reality, but they have tended to prioritize authoritative descriptions of seemingly homogenous groups, for it is difficult to maintain portraits of collectivity without sacrificing internal complexity. But the idea that Durkheimian collectivity and the internal power dynamics of persuasion are analytical antipodes is a misnomer. As in William Mazzarella’s (2017) recent theorization of media as mana, it is possible to imagine collective forces as acts of persuasion outside of any one person’s control, often surging unexpectedly and always with unexpected consequences. Indeed, these are the dynamics of fashion itself, whether found in spontaneous changes in style, skyrocketing political influence, or the decline of a long-established scientific model.

Within the informal economy, how many operations might begin as legitimate and end up zig-zagging their way around the law?

SR: Since no one had full control of the narrative, you write that the most likely reality is one of “continuous improvisation” where everyone—including yourself—is trying to make the best of what’s going on around them. Cultural Anthropology recently published Michael Degani’s (2018) article on zaniness and improvisation in Dar es Salaam, where electricians bounce around the city and the sector establishing connections and finding work. Reading these side-by-side, I’m intrigued by improvisation as an idiom for understanding sociality and politics in African cities. I wonder what your thoughts are as to how your article resonates—do you think of these processes (e.g., improvisation, persuasion) as particularly African or urban phenomenon?

SN: That is a brilliant article: apart from being great ethnography, I really appreciated both the Ngai-inspired historicization of “zaniness” as well as its applicability to African informal economy as a harbinger of global capitalism and precarity to come. I’m sure there are zany entrepreneurs everywhere—Belgium certainly has its fair share! But as has been well documented by Africanist scholars, this kind of informal and improvisational style is really the heart of African urban economic life (to name few not already cited by Degani: Apter 2005; Koolhaas 2007; Mains 2012; Ndjio 2012; Quayson 2014; Pype 2017; Di Nunzio 2019;). It’s tempting to insert a distinction between these zany electricians and the kind of improvisation involved in confidence schemes, but I think this would be a mistake. In fact, I remember Dedy telling me about an electrician who could “diminish” your bills by routing some of the power around the meter, just as described by Degani, but when the electric bill arrived undiminished, there was no one you could turn to for reimbursement on the fraud. Within the informal economy, how many operations might begin as legitimate and end up zig-zagging their way around the law? And as Dedy insisted, the reverse can happen too—his passport forgeries might have drained his clients for as much as he could get out of them, but the end result actually worked in many cases. We see this even within Degani’s stories about patrolling the city with the electric company in hopes of catching illegal installations—these interactions were quite likely to turn zany, and bribery was always available as a possibility. The police themselves in Abidjan are also improvisational entrepreneurs, ready to turn any situation into profit, just as Dedy often impersonated a police officer in order to profit from a culture of bribery.

SR: I would typically ask how this article fits into your broader project, but you became entangled in this material by accident—though of course it stems from your previous work on crime and bluffing (Newell 2012). You had returned to Abidjan to pursue a different project. Can you say more about this other project that drew you back to Côte d’Ivoire? And I’m curious, beyond this specific scam, what was your experience embarking on new research starting from the same community of interlocutors. Working in Treichville, do you risk always being pulled back into the bluff or the scam?

SN: My ethnographic approach is decidedly zany, in fact. I went to Côte d’Ivoire thinking I would examine the relationship between Pentecostal churches and political conflict, since Simone Gbagbo (the former president’s wife) was a passionate devotee and some pastors connected to her church were engaged in a somewhat apocalyptic prophecy about when Laurent Gbagbo would be freed from the Hague by divine forces and his enemies cast from Côte d’Ivoire. I quickly realized however that unlike in my earlier fieldwork where political debate had been a source of joy between strangers on the street, such talk had become taboo in public places. I was told that “we learned what comes of talking about politics. Neighbors killing neighbors for being in the Front Populaire Ivoirian (Gbagbo’s party) and piling the bodies up in their courtyards.” Most people claimed to be tired of politics or cynical about the possibility of political improvement.

In any case, before I made much progress in either religion or politics, I discovered another project that captivated me (apart from the one that captured me, described in the article). These were the brouteurs, the true evolution of the nouchi subculture I had studied over a decade earlier, cybercriminals who made use of internet cafés to scam money out of hapless whites on the other side of the ocean. The art of the bluff (Newell 2012) could now be turned upon gaous (fools, victims of scams) with full wallets, and moreover thefts escaped from problems of moral economy because they could be framed as payback for the colonial debt, a phrase oft-invoked by Nigerian 419ers and now circulating in Côte d’Ivoire. Not only was this a terrific transformation of the world I had studied, but that spring there were terrible rumors circulating about a wave of disappearing children, and the culprits were thought to be the brouteurs, who were using blood sacrifice and sorcery to draw their victims into their digital webs. I have a paper under review about this blending of sorcery and the internet. But yes, I went back to Abidjan with the intention of getting away from crime and ended up right back in the thick of it—the fact is that one’s social connections really determine the kind of world one will be exposed to. So, I plan to go back next summer with hopes of examining the emerging middle class in relationship to domestic accumulation to see whether the kinds of problems I’ve been studying in the United States around storage space, hoarding, and clutter have any comparable echoes in a place where even used plastic water bottles are recycled and even have market value. It will be interesting to see whether I can avoid getting dragged back into researching crime and youth again!


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