Capturing the Real-Time Human Experience in Ukraine
Image via Funky Tee on Flickr
Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. Two weeks later the Society for Cultural Anthropology published a series of essays written by anthropologists in Ukraine and Russia. Two weeks after that, they had enough submissions to run a continuation of the series.
The stories range from a collection of Ukrainian scholars’ social media posts detailing their experiences and thoughts in the face of war, to essays by anonymous Russian scholars on how discussion of the war is suppressed in their country.
“It really focuses on the catastrophe from the perspective of people who are there. It’s harrowing,” says Christopher Nelson, a UNC-Chapel Hill anthropology professor. “They were able to put together work by scholars who have been studying the region for a long time to try to make what was happening intelligible to readers who are not area specialists.”
Nelson is a co-editor of the Society for Cultural Anthropology’s open-access quarterly academic journal, Cultural Anthropology. Two other anthropologists edit the journal and website with him.
For the last 10 years, the editors have gathered essays from anthropologists and published them on a section of the site called Fieldsights. Within that is a collection of essays called Hot Spots, which are about current events and pressing global issues. The series began in response to the Fukushima tsunami and nuclear disaster in 2011. Nelson, who studies people living in Okinawa, Japan, contributed to the original Hot Spot.
When he and his fellow editors took on their roles in 2018, they acted on suggestions for new Hot Spots. They covered migrant caravans approaching America’s southern border when Donald Trump’s discourse drew national attention to them. After the COVID-19 pandemic began, the editors sought submissions about anthropologists’ pandemic experiences and received so many the site now has a separate coronavirus section. After the January 6 insurrection in 2021, they sought submissions on fascism in America, and when Russia invaded Ukraine, the editors knew they needed another Hot Spot series.
But neither Nelson nor his colleagues had experience in Ukraine or Russia, so they asked three anthropologists who studied in the area for help: Nancy Ries from Colgate University, Catherine Wanner from Pennsylvania State University, and Elizabeth Cullen Dunn at Indiana University.
With their personal and professional networks, Ries, Wanner, and Dunn found people to contribute to the series. Many of the essays are very personal as the author details their observations and reactions to the war unfolding around them.
“We want to hear the voices of the people who are experiencing it,” Nelson says. “We just trusted Nancy, Catherine, and Elizabeth to reach out and get people who would provide something compelling, and we let the material shape the collection.”
One article Nelson noted, in particular, is Tetiana Kalenychenko’s account of her flight from Ukraine called “Displacement and Displacement Again.” She describes her family’s decision to leave their home, fearing the bombs could make the house’s gas lines explode; her husband leaving to aid Ukrainian defenses; and negotiating with Russian soldiers surrounding their village to let women and children leave.
From a safe place, she writes: “We coordinate aid, and long to go home to build a renewed, even stronger Ukraine. I am praying for everyone to get their cup of hot tea and be safe tonight. I know that the dawn is coming. Always. Very soon.”
With these essays, the society can help readers consider the war dominating headlines through an anthropological lens. Readers can consider how the conflict interrupts and shapes daily life.
It is also a faster avenue for anthropologists to voice their thoughts. Academic articles can take years to publish. Cultural Anthropology just published a research article on the Fukushima nuclear disaster more than a decade after it occurred. Because research and review can take a long time, academic publication isn’t an ideal forum to discuss current events.
And anthropologists aren’t the only ones to benefit from the less formal discussion of current events. Nelson says the society’s website gets hundreds of thousands of hits a year. He’s heard from teachers who use the Hot Spot collection or other offerings on the site to shape lessons. Some people stumble across the website after a Google search.
“Our particular concern as anthropologists is the everyday experience of ordinary people and the ways in which they make sense of their world. What we want to do is to not only bring immediate information about the event, but to show how it was understood by the people who are experiencing it,” Nelson says. “Some of the people experiencing it are anthropologists. They live in a place at a time just like everyone else.”
Christopher Nelson is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology within the UNC College of Arts and Sciences. He’s an editor for the journal Cultural Anthropology.
*This story was originally published by UNC Research.
January 23, 2023