Bootcamp #1 – Romania, May 2023
Looking for solutions for fostering participation in a social, professional and civic insertion programme
in partnership with Ateliere Fără Frontiere
The Romanian bootcamp brought together 15 participants who are anthropologists, artists, actors and film editors, working in mixed teams. We concluded the week with four pitches to the team of our local stakeholder Ateliere fară Frontiere. The conversations that occurred after our pitches showed us (Corina, Rosalie and Freddie, the teaching team) that the hard work of the participants throughout the week was well worth it: out-of-the-box and concrete solutions were presented and the NGO-staff felt inspired and ready to implement some, and keep thinking about others. This is not an easy feat to accomplish as social work can be hard, with tight budgets and many hours of work that don’t always pay off.
It takes a village – and we wouldn’t have been able to do any of it without the support of the Faculty of Sociology and Social Work, who hosted us and offered the perfect setting for the taught sessions of the bootcamp and for the teams’ independent work. In turn, we tried to support local businesses that care for people and the environment. The providers for food and refreshments for the bootcamp we selected were MamaPan – Brutăria cu maia and Magazin Zero Waste București – check out their websites to learn about their products and mission.
Reflections and artworks inspired by the bootcamp
A Day of Observation at a Non-Governmental Organisation - Comic Strip
Andreea Chirică is an artist and graphic novelist. She published “The year of the pioneer” in 2011 and “Home Alone” in 2016. She published comic strips and illustrations in The Guardian, LA Times, Die Tageszeitung, Re:public Sweden, Wetransfer, Elle Romania, Scena9, DOR and her instagram account: persoana_fizica. She is currently working on a new graphic novel.
Anthropology Facing Solutions / Anthropology Facing Itself
Ruxandra Păduraru, Gabriela Preda, Alexandra Lulache
The bootcamp took place in Bucharest at the beginning of May and lasted exactly one week (from when we got to know each other until the final pitches), during which we were taught fast ethnography / applied anthropology methods and tested them out in a real life setting – the Ateliere fără Frontiere Association.
AFF exists since 2008 and focuses its work on the social, professional, civic integration of excluded, marginalized and vulnerable people. It was an intense week in which we were presented with the difficulties the association faced, we went to the work site and talked both to the employees of the programme and the association administrators, we did participatory observation, we brainstormed for organisational improvements that later turned into presentations. To sum it up, it really was fast, very fast ethnography.
What exactly is fast ethnography? It’s a research method used in small-scale studies so that the topic can be covered more easily in a short period of time, which means that although you use many of the same tools as you would in a classical ethnography, such as participant observation, unstructured interviews and other qualitative methods, you cannot really immerse yourself in that environment (Millen, 2000). And one more thing, fast ethnography is clearly aimed at finding a solution to a problem (or more), so while it is an explorative process, it has a tightly defined purpose.
This experiment with fast ethnography triggered many questions about our relationship to anthropology in general, to failure, about the weight of researching for solutions not just for knowledge, and about the stress and curiosity that came with doing things different from what we were used to.
In the academic field of anthropology, solution is not a common term used. The focus is on studying and understanding rather than finding answers. However, if there is a need to find potential solutions, the process involves following research steps such as immersing oneself in the community, conducting lengthy interviews, spending time with individuals to build trust, observing daily activities, maintaining work ethic, respecting ethical principles, and ensuring no harm is done. This process takes time and is aimed at gaining a deep understanding. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to anthropology, but the above principles are crucial pillars, and avoiding iatrogeny (harming while trying to do good) is highly emphasized.
The ideas of fast ethnography, business anthropology, and organizational diagnosis are not new. One of the very first papers I read as a student in my Introduction to Anthropology course was about a team doing research at a hotel in the United States. Their goal was to attract and keep customers. Within a few weeks, they conducted research, gained understanding, and provided solutions. In that short period of time, they earned $45,000. As an 18-year-old with an interest in anthropology, I found it to be an alluring dream. The desire and motivation to make the world a better place was at its highest. While I did not have much of a connection to the American Dream, I envisioned a future in anthropology where people would seek us out for solutions and pay us for our services.
After the joy of reading my first anthropological texts and encountering the idea that anthropologists can contribute with recommendations that change things, then followed 3 + 2 years of studies where the anthropologists we studied researched, published and provided fresh perspectives that can help us better comprehend the world we live in. It was a challenging experience, with complex terminology, ethnographies spanning hundreds of pages, and researchers spending years in the field. Amazing researches but which can only bring satisfaction to those who can comprehend them. As time passes, I have started to question who the intended audience is for our writing. Should we be writing solely for our peers or is that limiting? How can we engage with projects that take anthropologists beyond the academic realm? I’ve written before about the internal struggle I went through as an anthropologist when I had to participate in projects outside of academia.
Looking back, the Bootcamp presented its own set of challenges which can further contribute to this discussion. The idea of working in teams was daunting, especially after years of working solo in school. Additionally, we spent a few hours at Ateliere fără Frontiere, a space completely new to me. I witnessed firsthand the struggles faced by individuals who were particularly vulnerable and dealing with difficult situations. Our task was to develop a solution related to the low motivation of employees in the program. We were required to create an engaging PowerPoint presentation to serve as the foundation of a 10-minute pitch.
I initially felt outraged about the situation. I believed there wasn’t enough time to fully understand what was happening, and that our sudden presence was causing fear among those we were working with. Additionally, there was no transition or adjustment period, and our group was made up of individuals from various fields with different work ethics. I also questioned questioned the usefulness of PowerPoint graphics and there were disagreements in our team with how ideas were formulated. Soon, fear set in – fear of causing harm or misinterpreting information, fear of not having enough theory or support, and fear of lacking time. The impostor syndrome also played a role, as we questioned our qualifications and what gave our opinions weight. This feeling was twofold, as it wasn’t just about the situation at hand but also towards our own team members.
Probably the most powerful disjunction came when I realised how little I understood of what was happening at Ateliere fără Frontiere. How can you offer an answer to a question you haven’t had a chance to process? My emotions were all over the place – ranging from despair to rage caused by various factors. My notes were disorganized, covering everything from the space to what we were being told officially and unofficially, as well as how I felt and what others were saying. I hoped my notes would eventually make sense, but they never did. I also hoped to piece together a comprehensive picture with the other participants – but everyone seemed to be equally bewildered and pressured by that final goal of making a slideshow.
During my first interview, I found myself in a very uncomfortable situation. While this scenario may not be typical for a fast ethnography approach, it was a part of the bootcamp setting. Four of us, one from each team, interviewed a 20-year-old beneficiary of the socio-professional integration programme. We had no information about him, such as where he lived, how he got there, or why he was considered “unemployable.” We were warned that he was extremely shy and had attempted to run away before the meeting. The initial few minutes were difficult, as we had not discussed who would ask the questions, take notes, or handle other logistical issues that would have facilitated the process. I felt stuck, unable to escape a dilemma. I disagreed with some of the others’ approaches, sensed that the respondent was uncomfortable with the situation, and felt that it conflicted with my own ethical principles. We discussed the incident during the feedback session the following day, and the subsequent interviews were more successful. But although it is impossible to conduct fieldwork flawlessly, anthropologists have a responsibility to minimize trial and error experiments, particularly when dealing with vulnerable individuals.
After finishing the bootcamp and taking some time to reflect, I realized that the process itself was the goal, rather than achieving success immediately. It’s not realistic to offer solutions to a problem in just a few hours, especially when you don’t have all the information. However, the main objective was to leave the academic world and rethink our roles as anthropologists.
I approached this in several ways. Firstly, by questioning myself – what makes my discourse as an anthropologist legitimate? Why do usually people assume that I have all the answers just because I have a background in social science? Secondly, by considering my colleagues – how do we condense complex social situations into concise dialogues without getting sidetracked, and how can we handle disagreements within the team without any one person dominating the conversation? Finally, by reflecting on the nature of anthropology itself – while the methods used in anthropology may seem accessible to everyone, it’s important to recognize that it’s a continuous learning process. Interviews are more than just simple conversations, and observation goes beyond just being present in a space. It’s not always safe to offer solutions, but as an anthropologist, we can raise important questions and suggest potential directions. And projects like these should be strongly encouraged starting from college.
Ruxandra Păduraru is an urban anthropologist. Her recent interests are centered around gentrification, gender discrimination in urban design, the class dimension of urban smells, multispecies ethnographies, precarious living, garbage and pests in the cities, and emotionally dirty labor.
Did I miss the Methodology class when they were talking about teamwork for data collection?
In college, I was used to receiving assignments in the form of brief ethnographic research papers, to then finish with something more complex: a bachelor’s degree, dissertation or doctorate. In this context, I was taught to do my own fieldwork: I organized my time according to what else I had to do that day/period, I wrote my own discussion guide, created relationships with the people I had intended to talk to for the research, immediately afterwards I wrote my notes as I heard and remembered them. In the end, I was the one who analysed the data. The situation was very similar in projects I had worked on before: maybe I didn’t write the methodology and the discussion guide, but when I was doing fieldwork I went alone or with someone who had the same or more experience than me; in the end the data analysis was done side-by-side. It’s all an exercise that becomes a habit over time, without fail, and you never question whether it could take place in a different way compared to what you learned in college.
On the same note, regarding academic ethnography vs. rapid ethnography, I want to continue Ruxandra’s thoughts, shifting attention to another aspect: data collection. As my colleague noted above, academic research is one thing – it is long-term, you start developing relationships with people in order to gain their trust, you have discussions and interviews with them over a longer period of time, you reconsider and recalibrate, but rapid ethnography is quite different.
The connection between data collection and the type of ethnography you practice is a key one: during college you can take your time to think about how you organise your methodology, how many times to go out into the field, how much time you spend there, and how to recalibrate along the way if anything happens. When it comes to fast ethnography you don’t have that much time, and as in our case, even less.
‘Will the discussion guide be any good? Have we covered the essential questions? Is there any question(s) that could intensify the vulnerability of the person we’re talking to? How much time do we have? Who goes on the field and how do we group? How do I condense all the information I got and how do I present it?’ were some of the questions running through my head during the bootcamp days. How much time did we have to talk to the employee in the socio-occupational insertion programme? Half an hour to find those essential, structured ideas and then build what we would present to the association as final results. Did we have time to get acquainted with the employees in the socio-professional integration programme through the discussion guide? Not really, no.
Therefore, as the whole framework was constructed – short time, a discussion guide with some very relevant questions, the fact that I didn’t know the person I was going to talk to and had no opportunity to talk to them beforehand – I had to find a colleague to team up with and talk to Dana*. The reason why I had to team-up with a colleague to talk to Dana* is because I had decided all boot camp participants should leave the ‘permanent’ team and team up with a person of their choice). All while other colleagues were around the NGO building doing participant observation at the other insertion programs (educlick and remesh) and a few were talking to the person in charge of communications and social media.
When I spoke to Dana* I told her briefly why I was there, how old I am, where I work and what my work meant; so did the colleague I was with. I felt a strange hit and run type of feeling starting to set in. Why did it feel like I was stealing something? Firstly, ‘hit’ because I hadn’t had the time to make any connection with her: we got to know each other as I sat down, and over the next half hour I was taken through the main events of her life both the best and the worst, and then I said my goodbyes and incorporated my notes into the team presentation. Had the situation been different, i.e. to do this presentation for faculty or a project, I could have spent more time building the relationship between me and Dana*, so I would have sat with her during work hours, maybe a bit during her private time, and drifted between small talk and discussions that would have helped me with my research. And ‘run’ because there’s a very little chance I’ll ever get to go back and talk to Dana* again, so I went back to work, to my vacation plans, hobbies, and overall middle class corporate life in Bucharest.
So, what does data collection actually mean when you team up with someone with an anthropology/sociology background? What about with someone who doesn’t have the same experience as you and comes from a different field? How can you build your confidence that they take valuable and timely notes in the field journal so they don’t forget later? But more importantly, how can you trust that the person you are working with does not have an exoticizing, superior perspective with the potential to further the vulnerability in the socio-occupational insertion program? Realistically speaking, you don’t even have enough time to pursue the question to its end because time is too short, you have concrete tasks, precise and targeted outcomes, there’s no space for “what if’s”.
Broadly speaking, when you work in a team there are a few things you can’t control, but you can negotiate them. My team consisted of two other anthropologists and a visual artist. Although the anthropologist colleagues and I are at different stages of anthropology studies, academically speaking, this wasn’t an impediment because we were actually speaking from the same positions about the things we observed, processed and how we wanted to write. Our ideas were building on top of each other, meshing and refining, we were seeing the same insights and understanding why one of us disagreed with a perspective. Even when interviewing Dana*, the colleague I worked with is a future PhD student in Anthropology, so it was easy to share what we had to do and what we aimed to avoid during the interview; a negotiation that didn’t need a ‘why’.
On the other hand, this negotiation was different when I was working with my colleague who works in the visual arts, because the dialogue no longer started from the same common points, but we had to meet somewhere in the middle. Obviously, I couldn’t watch her every minute when I was in the field, to see if she was taking her notes, to observe her interacting with the employees in the insertion programme and if she was creating a safe space for them without hurting them emotionally or making them vulnerable in any way. Those were some fears of mine about how I should act in the field and in front of respondents, as I had learned in college that certain mistakes can affect the quality of the research. As I said, in a team you negotiate your space and the powers you have, but the challenge intensifies when time is limited and you can’t have discussions about methodology, do’s and don’ts in the field, perspectives on the topic and the place.
No, I didn’t miss that methodology course. I still don’t have a clear answer on how to go about (and I don’t know if I will anytime soon) collecting data, creating dialogue and negotiating understanding between someone who has studied anthropology and someone outside. It’s a trial&error process that needs small steps and lots of patience, where both sides I would say have to give each other credit for what they know and what they can learn.
„Where is the point of tension?” the trainers asked.
This was a recurring question in the fast ethnography workshop and it soon became a soothing mantra. It asks us to look at what situations, moments or places people feel stuck, what creates arguments and where is the point of release, when do you yourself feel weird, when is discomfort palpable and…why? This prompt has two effects:
- First, it tells me how to start looking at the situation around me; it’s a short incursion in a social setting, all thedetails hit you, it’s easy to be overwhelmed and think “where do I even start?” Well, luckily your assignment isn’t to come up with a new structural theory of society, it’s to find a fix, so go find the problems.
- Second, it tells me how to look at myself. If I am the “tool” of research, there will always be tension around yourself as a newcomer, and you can take that tension, hold it close, interrogate it, and let it show you what lies underneath. For me, sitting with discomfort was like pressing on one of those blue-green bruises, and it meant answering a question that anthropology always makes us ask: Do I have a right to be here? Do I have the right to a narrative for what I observe?
Testing around with fast ethnography actually triggered more questions about my relationship with ethnography in its classical, long-term format, because it fast-tracks the same insecurities and forces you to make some peace with them. My impostor fear related to ethnography is that I don’t get to that natural feeling with people fast enough, I always need time to cut through the awkwardness, I launch questions that land stiffly and get me nowhere. I get frustrated and think… aren’t there researchers out there who just converse with flair? Who deliver questions in a way that reaches people and so in return they give you exactly what you needed to know? Writing it down right now I realise how silly it sounds, not only because knowledge isn’t this transactional, but because I’ve barely met these demi-god anthropologists who deliver perfect questions met with perfect answers.
What I thought I needed to acquire this flair was more time, in one community, around one subject. But I realised that what I actually needed was to accept, investigate and work with the awkwardness. The setup (fast ethnography) and question (where is the point of tension?) helped. Every weird moment is a direction of where you could go next, every blockage could be revealing something and pinpoint your next adaptation. Your own discomfort, instead of being a suspicious guest, it’s a partner, even a working instrument. “What makes me feel like this, what is in the air, what did people react or didn’t react to, how does this illuminate something, where is the fuzzy spot that I need to investigate further?” You are faster to work with what feels light or tense or smooth or difficult, and personally, I was faster to question myself in productive ways.
For example, after the first day we saw that employees had their phones locked away during working hours. As a group, we all felt a lot of emotions and made our first sweeping statements. “This place is like a prison”. Our own freedom with objects (especially those that we see as extensions of ourselves like our phones), our self determination to decide when and how we use our things or when we take breaks, was threatened. My interpretation is that we felt a gap between us and the employees that we needed to cover up with outrage. I took that tension in myself and put it up for investigation. When I raised the issue of the phone in interviews, it didn’t feel like a sensitive issue, people were rather relaxed about placing them in the cubbyholes voluntarily, taking them when needed, they were nearby and with the sound on. On the second day it reminded me a bit of how I put my phone in another room while I work so I don’t procrastinate. How much was this procedure a deprivation of freedom and how much was it an exercise that the employees themselves were open to, in order to try and build discipline? I might still lean for the first but it was important to open up to the idea that it’s probably a mix. There were a lot of easy explanations, black and white brushstrokes that came our way, and it was really revealing to be part of a process to unravel them. All of us at first, without noticing, fixated on the story of one person that we bonded with more and let their experiences colour everyone else’s. Having a bit of a more intimate connection with someone’s perspective (especially in this context where bonding was so scarce) made us feel like we wouldn’t mess it up, that we can rely on what we saw there because it felt real, so this must be it. The way we spent those first days was to work with ourselves individually to get over fixations and easy answers that could relieve our angst by brandishing us as “good people” in that situation, and to actually be open to what was around us in its full messiness. I think we barely got over that hurdle and we needed more time to work with the messiness. But how much more time is enough?
I realise this view might be very personal, but for me, knowing from the beginning that I’m entering a process of understanding that will always be incomplete, that will at least partly fail, was actually freeing. Instead of trying to avoid failure at all costs or to think of how it would have worked out for a “perfect” by-the-book anthropologist, I was encouraged to dig deeper, to be more critical, to ask those uncomfortable questions faster rather than postponing them. In my image of a long-term ethnography, I see an expectation of perfection that is not only paralysing, but unrealistic.
I’ll go back to the issue of “solutions” and “expertise” and I have two blunt thoughts: 1) the academic anthropologist will always be an editor of reality 2) if people who do fieldwork don’t propose solutions, others will, and they might be worse.
For me, the “do I have a right to say something about this with just a few weeks/months of fieldwork?” dilemma is solved by an obnoxious, ‘lesser evil’-based calculus. Development work is so wide, so diverse, you get all kinds of approaches to research, but a surprising amount of publications and reports that place recommendations over people’s lives have very little direct contact with actual people. Have you heard the light flutter of questionnaires? Those built to validate or invalidate tight explanations and solutions that you already thought about in a glass-panelled office? It doesn’t have to be a glass-panelled office, it can be a public institution, a small organisation that brings together young, well-educated people that read a lot and think a lot. Be it for tight budgets, financing timeframes, or long-entrenched notions of “who knows best”, there are a lot of well-meaning projects and people who will not wait around for a year for your in-depth ethnography in order to formulate their solutions. And they are not going anywhere. They will continue to hurry to change policy landscapes, to redirect money flows, to share knowledge, to “do” development.
I once had a conversation for a project with an anthropologically-minded architect: if only we could get a week of fieldwork, it would make the whole difference. For another policy project we pleaded: give us at least a day in every field-site. One day, one week, can change your direction entirely if you learn how to troubleshoot yourself. In two weeks where you are fully present in a setting you can cut through multiple layers of opinions, reactions, emotions, narratives, histories, fears, relationships, desires. Could you get more if you had more time? Definitely. Is this short incursion also valuable (and still much more than your usual policy project will allow)? Definitely. At the end of the day, this is probably the main criteria by which I will judge this fast method: can it contribute to a richer understanding of a situation compared to what is currently used in order to make decisions about people’s lives?
The question I have is how do you deal with all this content to come up with recommendations. Classical anthropology tries to absolve itself from this responsibility, but can it really? When you accumulate so much from an environment, across years, you have to become the utmost editor. What you bring in, exclude, highlight, build, describe, is as much a process of your construction as it is a product of the place or people. And the end result is a paper in your name. But in this faster version, you don’t have time- nor the diversity and richness of material to be honest- to bring yourself in as narrator as much. The limitations of applied anthropology make you stick to the problem, the people, the place, and the action that should ultimately serve other people before it serves yourself.
The self-doubt and self-questioning that comes with it, well, I think it should never go away in the first place. I think we will always be insufficient. But this exercise was an insightful way of dealing with a researcher’s insufficiency by using it as a tool of reflection. For me, one of the most important values that anthropology preaches is that no matter how long you are there for, in the complexity and ever changing dynamic of social life, you should learn how to live comfortably with being suspended in never really knowing something completely, never for certain, never quite enough, but still finding things incredibly revealing.
Illustration / Comic Strip
In this illustration, I aim to convey the idea that when faced with multiple problems, it can be difficult to feel motivated and positive, especially when you perceive rejection from society. It is important to acknowledge that this experience is not limited to any particular group, as everyone faces difficulties in life. However, those who face discrimination more frequently may find it even harder to stay motivated and may require more support and encouragement.
My suggestion is to take a chance and start solving one problem, regardless of how you go about it. It is important to celebrate your efforts, even if the outcome is not perfect. By taking small steps towards solving problems, you can learn what works best for you and develop your own style of problem-solving. Sharing your experience with others can also be rewarding and can help you stay motivated as you continue to work towards your goals. Remember, it’s not always about the end result, but the journey and the lessons learned along the way that are truly valuable.
Loreta Isac– Cojocaru is an illustrator and animator. She considers herself an explorer especially when she draws the stories she discovers/ or documents them with various occasions.
10 Minutes to Pitch a Revolution: Between Fast Ethnography and Queer Insurrection
Last year, I translated Mary Nardini Gang’s “Toward the queerest insurrection”, a queer revolutionary manifesto, into Romanian. It’s a text about being queer as being anti-establishment. It keeps inspiring me. The first paragraph ends like this: “Queer is the cohesion of everything in conflict with the heterosexual capitalist world. Queer is a total rejection of the regime of the Normal.” It helps me to imagine a better society with wealth redistribution, self-organization and anti-authoritarianism at its core. And yet I’ve been in countless meetings with state officials or corporation representatives whose support, whether financial or logistical, we often turn to, so that queer culture festivals I help organize, such as art200, continue existing and hopefully thriving.
This particular kind of conflict between changes within the system and a more radical, revolutionary, anti-capitalist approach is something I feel quite often as I go about my daily life and work. I believe all drugs should be decriminalized and the state needs to invest in medical and social services for persons suffering from addictions. At the same time, I publicly support a recent law proposed by the political party REPER which (only) aims to decriminalize possession of up to three grams of weed. I think the police, as an institution, only serves the interests of the most privileged, and no amount of education or reform can fundamentally change that. And yet, as a worker in an LGBTQ+ organization, I’ve taken part in discussions with the police around better addressing hate crimes and I’ve helped organize trainings on the topic for police and prosecutors.
”Conflict” would also be the word I’d choose to describe my experience in the AnthroArt Bootcamp. Conflict is what I felt when I read Ellen Isaacs’ “The Value of Rapid Ethnography”, one of the suggested preparation readings. It talks about the role of ethnography in today’s fast-paced business world. According to her, ethnographers, in this case hired by company management, are meant to notice patterns or problems and propose clear, simple solutions to improve company policy or the working environment. Similarly, the presentations around fast ethnography during our first days at the bootcamp aimed to steer us away from the academic approach many of us, participants, knew and had, towards a more applied, business- and solution-oriented approach to ethnography.
This approach encourages us to be practical in order to have an immediate impact on a certain group. We can create real, tangible, immediate change. Yet it is not without its costs– it can involve the lack of necessary time and space to listen to people and delve deep into the problem. It usually involves being hired by company management and thus having to tailor your observations and solutions to their understanding. It can involve proposing small solutions to big, systemic matters in order to increase the likelihood of actual change.
Conflict is what I felt when applying what we were learning around fast ethnography to the work of Ateliere Fără Frontiere (Workshops without Borders), the NGO we worked for, whose mission is to integrate vulnerable people on the labor market. Its beneficiaries are people who have struggled with different vulnerabilities, such as long-term unemployment, addictions, disabilities, domestic violence or homelessness. People from these groups receive social support services, insertion counseling and pedagogical support while working at four workshops involving manual labor: Educlick (focusing on waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) refurbishment and reuse); Remesh (collecting and transforming used banners into unique, handmade products); Bio & Co (a social farm specialised in the production of organic fruit and vegetables), and Logietic(a sustainable logistics workshop).
It was hard not to notice many (unspoken) tensions within the organization, which speak about escalating injustices within society at large. There are two types of staff working for Ateliere Fără Frontiere, involving different power dynamics: that of the understanding social worker, taking the hardships of the beneficiary into account, and that of the employer, who seeks to maximize productivity and enforce rigid rules. As a result, beneficiaries are also caught between two different sets of expectations. On the one hand, they are encouraged and expected to take responsibility for their own actions and comply with the strict rules such as leaving their phones outside of workshop space. On the other hand, staff quietly fear that beneficiaries will give up or fail due to their history of unemployment, and thus closely survey their actions.
Workers, paid minimum wage, struggle to come to work daily and keep to the rather strict schedule while having to deal with constant financial insecurity, risk of homelessness, their previous (or on-going) additions or the need to provide for their families. Staff try to be understanding of the workers’ needs, provide or refer them to services, while trying to maintain a work environment that resembles those in similar factories or workshops. On top of that, they have to keep the NGO alive by always finding and impressing the next funder or corporate partner and by selling products made at the workshops.
It is not without internal conflict that we proposed a practical, simple solution to increase understanding between beneficiaries and staff at the end of the bootcamp. My team and I designed a two day workshop which would get both beneficiaries and staff talking. The discussions would be facilitated by an external mediator and would start with a creative exercise. Then, beneficiaries and staff would have group discussions, first separately, and then together, about things they appreciate and things they would change around work environment and practices. Our solution had to be simple, easy to implement, and easy to pitch in about 10 minutes. And I think the workshop we proposed fit that description quite well.
Yet the problems the NGO is facing are much deeper and cannot be solved by a practical, palatable, two day workshop. The problems are caused by a failing neoliberal state which increasingly refuses to protect its most vulnerable citizens. They are related to the lack of social services, social housing or a working public health system, all of which NGOs struggle to compensate for. They stem from a capitalist economy with growing social inequalities, in which the poor are blamed for being poor and receiving welfare. They are expected to work in the most difficult conditions while having no certainty for what the future will bring.
The problems we noticed are related to the way we (NGO staff included) internalize and perpetuate these neoliberal discourses along with work practices based on exploitation and competition instead of understanding and solidarity, often without even noticing. On an individual level, each of us should try to have more empathy for vulnerable people such as the beneficiaries of AFF. On a systemic level, the tension stems from an unjust social order and an exploitative capitalist state which, in the end, only the most rich and powerful profit from.
The Mary Nardini Gang would probably suggest starting a revolution rather than building a two day workshop. But how do you pitch a revolution in 10 minutes? Working within the system, to reform it, versus organizing to dismantle it and building something completely new: those are the two theoretical and methodological approaches we are faced with as researchers dealing with social issues. It’s also the internal conflict I face daily as an activist. There’s no definitive answer on how to manage it. The only conclusion I’ve come to is that I’d like to keep the conflict alive. I can and will fight for changes within the system (or within an NGO, in this particular case). Such changes can at least temporarily improve the lives of vulnerable, oppressed people. At the same time, I know I need to keep the bigger picture in mind, the (utopian) society I strive for, the anti-authoritarian revolution we’re building solidarity for. As a researcher and activist, that’s the conflict I want to keep alive and keep learning from.
Luca Istodor is a queer activist and Anthropology MA student at the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration in Bucharest. They co-organize art200, the LGBTQ+ culture festival, they work for Asociația Accept and coordinated A Space of Our Own, a queer Romanian love stories anthology. They’re queer, poli, kinky, somewhere on the non-binary spectrum, and often quite tired.
The Inclusion Law - short film
created by Daniel Popa & Jean-Lorin Sterian, edited by Cinty Ionescu
Daniel Popa (Artistic Director – Doctor’s Studio) is an actor, writer and director. Daniel decided to become an actor to experience feelings and events that otherwise won’t fit into one’s lifetime. After realizing everything is the opposite of what it appears to be, he found refuge in political pamphlets and independent theatre projects.
Jean-Lorin Sterian is a researcher, writer, artist and performer currently based in Bucharest. In 2008 he opened lorgean theatre, the first living-room theater in Romania and since 2014 he manages “HomeFest”, a festival of performing art held only in houses and flats. He published several fiction books and he performs regularly with his art band pj.lo & the accidentals. He received his PhD in Sociology at SNSPA in 2022.
Cinty Ionescu is a Bucharest based artist with a constant interest in interdisciplinary collaboration and live experiment. She is committed to exploring new expression forms in the feld of live performance, at the crossroads of visual arts and live music, of stage theatre and digital theatre, installations and augmented reality.
The walk from my apartment in Berceni,
a lower-middle class neighbourhood of Bucharest, to the Ateliere Fără Frontiere (AFF) premises, where they host three out of the four of their socio-professional integration projects, Remesh, Logietic and Educlick, takes you about 17 minutes. To get there from the flat that I grew up in, you need to walk alongside Alexandru Obregia boulevard, trying to tolerate the irritating horns of the already impatient drivers on their way to work, past Rainbow Coffee, the first specialty coffeshop that I witnessed spring up in the neighbourhood a few years prior, past the newly renovated Piața Sudului market, with its white-painted archways and glass building, past the Sun Plaza shopping centre, which hosts inside, besides what you would expect from a normal shopping centre, a private hospital and a few floors of office space. In Sun Plaza’s outdoor area there is a fountain in the middle and two dining areas, with tables and chairs for the customers of Starbucks and Gloria Jean’s Coffees, respectively. On the shopping mall’s outside walls you can see, in various sizes, the logos of, much like the neighbourhood itself, the lower-middle market brands like H&M, C&A, Zara. As you turn on Șoseaua Olteniței, right after the two-storied building of the Viva Sport gym, which offers Pilates, dancing, aerobic classes, a swimming pool, a sauna and, among others, a tanning salon.
If you go on this walk, as I did, with all the gross simplifications and omissions that such a binary narrative might bring, you might see the contours of a profile and counter-profile emerging. First would be the new Berceni (and Bucharest) woman and man, the corporate worker, with the aptitude and (formal) training to function within a digitised economy, who drinks flat whites (instead of just coffee with milk), stuck in their car on their way to their jobs that offer private medical health insurance. The counter-profile, again with gross simplifications, would be the left-behind – the sixty and seventy something women and men working as security guards as their state pension wouldn’t cover their cost of living, the people whose formal trainings as welders, shoemakers, technicians had no place in an abruptly de-industrialised country, the young shopping clerks and fast-food workers, the service workers and workers of the gig economy – the foot soldiers of the emerging mass-market consumer society that Romania dearly wants to become. In short, the two profiles were the ones who can afford paying for a monthly gym subscription roughly the equivalent of a quarter of the Romanian minimum wage, after tax, and the ones who are actually earning the Romanian minimum wage.
With hints of these thoughts, I arrived at Ateliere Fără Frontiere. Having a smoke with the fellow participants of the AnthroArt Romania Social Inclusion Bootcamp, with backgrounds in theatre, arts, design, social sciences, I could already see how we might be perceived by the participants of the AFF workshops.
For a bit of context,
AFF functions as a back-to-work workforce development organisation that helps vulnerable people, people escaping domestic violence, people who have been outside of the formal labour market for many years (or who have never been included in it), people who have struggled with addictions, former detainees, people with different disabilities or medical conditions, such as epilepsy or deafness, returning citizens, such as refugees from Ukraine. Their project participants or insertion workers, meaning the people receiving their support, enter a two to three-years socio-professional integration programme while they get to work in one of their workshops, earning a wage and potentially gaining enough life and work skills in order to be integrated in the formal job market later on. Our job there, as requested by the permanent staff of the Ateliere Fără Frontiere NGO, was to conduct research and come up with a solution that would help the NGO support personnel (the staff working directly with the participants) better motivate the participants to engage with the programme and have a higher chance of completing it.
One of the first things that struck me there was the difference I felt between my fellow bootcamp participants and I, with our piercings, dyed hair, colourful clothing and relaxed and curious demeaner, and the insertion workers, who people whose life situations were radically different than ours, to a point where it would be difficult for us to fully understand their circumstances.
Not only that, but, as it happened during the many years of anthropology’s colonial past (and is perhaps still happening today to large degrees), we were there on behalf of the people in power, being invited by the NGO’s management staff and decision makers to conduct research on a group of people we had never met, in order to understand and translate their situation above.
This shouldn’t be automatically seen as a nefarious arrangement however.
It was very clear, early on, from my discussions with various members of the permanent staff of the NGO, that they were genuinely interested in the well-being of their programme participants, trying to offer them support and counselling to the best of their abilities. “If we don’t help them, no one would” told me one of the staff members I talked to. And I truly believed her that AFF was, unfortunately, perhaps one of the only options for their participants to find a better life for themselves in Romania. And I could empathise with the permanent staff’s searching for ways of better retaining their programme participants, so that they would have a better autonomous life in a country with a retreating state, which fails to offer enough of the efficient and necessary welfare and social services natural in a democracy.
I could not help but situate myself somewhere on the binary described above, as I started to question my role there and my ability to come up with a feasible solution. I realised that the programme participants, even though with various backgrounds, were people largely left out of today’s market economy. The challenges they were facing, such as escaping war, not having enough formal training to be considered skilled or semi-skilled workers, being single parents raising their children on unlivable wages, facing different forms of discrimination in their day-to-day lives, such as racism or ableism, were challenges that were largely foreign to me. And here we were, like a group of trendy aliens, asking them about their life situations that we couldn’t really understand and telling them “Yeah, I understand”.
Most of my frustration
stemmed from the realisation that perhaps one week is not really enough in order to really try to ultimately help these people. It was frustrating listening to them about their circumstances, about how tough and challenging they found the insertion programme, about the sometimes many challenges and stresses they have to juggle at the same time. And most frustrating was realising that the insertion programme, with its support, counselling offered and sometimes leniency, however rigorous, was still much better than the imperatives that a similar job in the private sector would bring. I felt that they had to follow rules, such as strict breaks or lack of access to their mobile phones, that wouldn’t really apply to me, people from the “new Bucharest woman and man” category, with my ongoing degree in anthropology and my former experience as a software engineer for a huge multinational. And more so frustrating was that, it seemed to me at that point, that a number of these participants would face problems either fitting into the formal job market and enjoying a more autonomous life or relying on the support of a largely-absent state welfare system.
“If it’s frustrating it means that you’re doing something a bit more real, not just a cutesy research project” told me one of my friends as I explained to him my experience in the bootcamp. And that was true, what was important about the bootcamp was that we could, perhaps, try to come up with clearer observations and a bit of a fresh perspective for the members of the permanent staff, the people who asked us to be there and were eager to understand the situation better and see how to improve the chances of success of the programme, but were maybe too “inside of things”.
What my team came up with
was a workshop meant to improve the communication on both a vertical and horizontal axis – between the permanent staff and insertion workers, between the insertion workers themselves and between the members of the permanent staff themselves, respectively. We suggested an idea that would bring everyone to the table, in various formats, in order to help both the permanent staff and the insertion workers voice their concerns and suggestions, talk about the things they like and dislike about their workspace, from a more equal footing.
This bootcamp raised, for me, a number of questions, which overlap with the questions that current-day anthropology grapples with – from what standpoint and circumstances do I engage in research, who are the people I’m trying to gain knowledge from, what are the power relations between the researcher and the researched, who am I gaining this knowledge for and how will it be used, will this knowledge ultimately help the people studied or be just an addition to the abstract academic debates of anthropology? What I can say is that this bootcamp felt real and that I hope we had a real impact.
Andrei-Victor Șerbănescu is a former software engineer turned anthropology student. He has published articles in Iscoada, Echinox, Dilema Veche and Almanahul Trepanatsii.
The Anthropological Journey: Reflections on Bootcamps, Humility, and Learning from Failure
I have never been a fan of bootcamps, for several reasons I deem extremely important. Some are quite personal, but there is a way to theorize them regardless of my subjective positioning. Only, I don’t want to do that and produce an objective critique, since it is subjectivity itself that’s at stake here.
The first reason that comes to my mind is pressure. I hate pressure. I live with it, I embrace it, but there is one reason I haven’t competed in sports in well over a decade. I don’t really find myself performing well under that kind of pressure, and there are always afterthoughts, following such a performance. And I don’t want to live with more regret than I have already accumulated over my lifespan, so whenever possible I avoid these situations.
The second is what I would call superficiality. From my experience, most workshops and bootcamps I have been in, no matter how well organized or fun, didn’t really result in much change. They were mostly focused on the process, not the results, and on making people familiar with a predetermined range of steps that should be taken to achieve a certain result. This rarely goes as well as it could, especially if participation is voluntary and there’s no skill baseline or training. Much, or sometimes most of the output is rubbish.
The third, and last one for the moment, is especially relevant when it comes to anthropology. The discipline always throve on long or very long field engagements. Ethnography supposes a deep involvement with the community being studied, and a long journey into going native while becoming, a different person, attuned to different ways of being in the world or sensing.
In folk representations, a social or cultural anthropologist, for those knowledgeable enough not to confuse them with archaeologists or biological anthropologists, is someone traveling far away in unknown territories, to live within an exotic and little-known community, learn their language and ways, observe, interview, write fieldnotes, and then coming back home to write and teach about what they have learned. The sheer possibility to condense this kind of work in one or two weeks, is daunting.
But this is exactly why every anthropologist should do it at least once in their lifetime.
Because the world is messy, especially complex, and we’re caught in it whether we like it or not. And most of the time we don’t have the luxury to just observe, theorize, and analyse as much as we’d need or want to. We never produce perfect outcomes. We do, at most, the best we can under more constraints than we can possibly envisage. But the stakes, in academia, are completely different than in a corporation or an NGO. While in the former, much might be related to class and status, in the latter, usually, the thing at stake can be human lives. I am not trying to be dramatic and suggest it’s a question of life or death, but in the end you are working with people and trying to have an impact benefiting as many as possible in the shortest amount of time. The pressure is, as mentioned before, tremendous.
But they also should do it for a different yet extremely compelling reason. It is often easier to observe, research, and analyse the distant and even exotic than it is to distance oneself from the familiar enough to observe its inner workings. Add to that the constraints of time and a very tangible and applied objective, and you can easily turn any seasoned anthropologist into an undergraduate having to come at terms with fieldwork for the very first time. There’s no literature review that can help, mostly because there is no time for that. But there is a beneficiary, and you must figure out what they already know and want, and this has been one of the most challenging parts of the current bootcamp. As most people might know what they want, but they might not know how to say it. And, as anthropologists, we’re supposed to be very good at acknowledging that and getting to the core of things. But, for it to happen, we must realize that it’s the case. And that’s a very easy mistake to make.
Due to confidentiality issues, I cannot go into many details regarding the Bucharest anthro-art bootcamp for Ateliere Fără Frontiere. But it was, especially for me, a very humbling experience. I have an extensive track record when it comes to applied research and applied anthropology. I’ve been involved in a large number of projects for private beneficiaries, many among vulnerable communities, but I have also done the classical work, in a manner that Loic Wacquant would call a carnal ethnography, since I have managed to deploy habitus as a method of inquiry.
Because of it, but also probably because I was one of the most seasoned participants in the bootcamp, I took some things for granted, and three of them backfired.
The first was overestimating my ability to go with the flow and not delve deeper in how the project was framed and how we went, as teams, into the field. Being involved in so many research projects along the years, with a different range of individuals coming from all over the place, I was very confident I could get into meaningful conversations even during a bootcamp. And yet, probably because I somehow assumed an NGO was not part of the corporate world, I have misjudged the way power plays out in such a setting, in between the three most important actors: employees, management, and the external team. In most corporate ethnography settings, the research team is seen as someone with a very specific, high-level expertise, coming to fix things. Only fixing things, for many people, means either finding culprits or changing the workplace. And nobody really likes change. On the contrary, change implies adjusting, making efforts, and it is often painful. What’s worse, while the role of the anthropologists should be to become the voice of the people, they appear as the envoys of the management. An instrument of power. So, unless the fieldwork entry is not carefully worked out, instead of bridging the divide between management and the workforce, an applied anthropology team can sometimes unwillingly reinforce the status quo. And while in a regular project there is enough time to resolve this issue, in a bootcamp things are different.
The second is related to the first. My first attempt at informally engaging an employee became a textbook example of failure. While casually entering a workshop and trying to observe the dynamics, I have asked what I thought was a very simple question: what is this item? Apparently, the item had a name not very easy to pronounce, and the person I have casually asked froze and then called the team manager, who then proceeded to take me through the production stages and give me a supervised tour. My attempt to chat informally was instantly crushed by that one question, and by my inability to read the context. Considering the power relations described above, I now realize I must have appeared like an auditor coming to check up on how work was being done. And these visits rarely end well.
The third mistake I did was assuming I understood the initial brief. And this is, perhaps, the most important. I usually do a lot of clarification, but in this particular case I just assumed somebody else did it instead of me, and we ended with a curated brief, project, and setting. And yet, in the end, while we did deliver some useful solutions to the issues at hand, something important was missing, and I remember exactly how and when I have discarded that approach along with my team, because I was sure it was beyond the scope of the exercise. And maybe I was right, and it was. But that’s not the point.
To sum up, while bootcamps are rarely optimal solutions to design and research programs, they are extremely valuable tools for everyone involved in them. To the clients or corporate/NGO beneficiaries, they represent an occasion to get a fresh perspective on things and even a range of solutions that address some of their biggest concerns. To the researchers involved, they can be both a great reality check and a way of testing their skills in what I would call the real world. I, however, by no means imply that anthropology is fiction, although we do like storytelling, nor that academia lives in some bubble. But the stakes are usually different, and the very different pressures can make you reconsider the way you’re approaching the field.
Alexandru Dincovici is an anthropologist, associated lecturer at the University of Bucharest and NSPSPA, doing research in both academia and the private sector for more than 15 years. His main academic research interests are within the range of the anthropology of the body, medical anthropology, sports, embodied cognition and material culture. He owns, with his wife Alexandra, a research and consultancy boutique, IziBiz Consulting, active since 2014.
Life of a Workshop Cat
Roma Gavrilă is a freelance illustrator working on comics, as well as illustrations for editorials, young adults and older children. Many of her projects are focused on issues that preoccupy her personally, such as social themes and matters concerning women. In her personal work she is inspired by nature, the world close around her, landscapes she comes across in her walks, daily scenes and details that contribute to the story she tells.