The Alumni Interview: 10 Questions for Monica Heintz

August 27, 2020

At irregular intervals we publish interviews with alumni of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. We find out where they are living and working now, what they are conducting research on, and how their time at the MPI shaped their subsequent careers. In closing they share their advice for young anthropologists and name a book that has impressed them recently.

1. When were you at the MPI and what did you work on while you were here?
I was a postdoctoral fellow at the MPI from 2003 to 2005 in the Department ‘Resilience and Transformation in Eurasia’ with a comparative project on religious and moral education in post-socialist Romania and the post-Soviet Republic of Moldova.

2. Where do you work now?
I am a professor of anthropology at the University of Paris Nanterre and currently co-director of the Laboratoire d’Ethnologie et de Sociologie Comparative (CNRS/University of Paris Nanterre).

3. How did the time you spent at the MPI shape your current career?
Besides offering me the possibility to embark on a new subject and research field after my PhD, this period allowed me more thoroughly and systematically to engage with one of the themes that had emerged in my PhD, namely ethics – or morality – and which I have pursued ever since.

4. When you think back on your time at the MPI, what stands out most strongly?
At the MPI I learned how to work in a collective and to use field comparison as a basis for generalization and theorization. This has defined the way in which I have subsequently continued my research, whether directing master’s and PhD students or working on collective publications. The relations built up with my colleagues during this period were very strong, and even if time and distance have separated us, they make it possible for us to take on joint projects together at any time.

5. Do you still have connections with the MPI, and if so, what kind of contact and with whom?
For obvious reasons due to the structural turnover of researchers at the MPI, I have more links to MPI Alumni then to the current researchers, except for the Department Director, Chris Hann, who has always kindly assured that I am kept up to date since leaving the MPI by sending me institute reports, books and information on new projects, as well as inviting me to the “Realising Eurasia” ERC group conferences. I am also working with Patrick Heady as co-editor of the Berghahn series “Anthropology of Europe”. I am organizing a conference on care and morality next year together with Tatjana Thelen, another MPI Alumni. And I have very often exchanged ideas during conferences and engaged with colleagues who had been at the MPI, whether during my stay there or at other times, as we have confidence in each other’s methods and scientific ethos.

6. What is your current research topic?
I have recently embarked on new research on the ethics of cultural representation and more particularly on the ethics of moving images, which concretely leads to research on film corpora realized during the colonial period in Africa and their difficult re-appropriation today by local scholars, artists, and communities. The COVID crisis is a major obstacle for the pursuit of this project with our African colleagues, though, so I am happy that I have in parallel another project funded by the French National Research Agency in which our team is searching for the most ethical and viable way to “open” anthropological data, whether collected in the past or to be gathered in the future.

7. What are your plans for the future?
I wish to return to one of my first research topics, which investigated work values in times of economic crisis at the time based solely on ethnographic research in postsocialist Romania. Using a comparative framework but also insights from cognitive research on values, I want to understand how values change in times of crisis more generally. This cannot be done alone, so it will be a collective project.

8. Why did you become an anthropologist?
At 18 years old I left my home country, Romania, for France and experienced a cultural shock, but I also got to see how large the world is and how much there is to be discovered.  It’s important to remember that during socialist Romania in the 1980s we were not allowed to travel, and in the 1990 there were strict visa restrictions, so the kind of stories that explorers or anthropologists were encountering seemed beyond reach – and thus were incredibly appealing. When, later on, I found that even tourists could go to places where anthropologists go, I knew enough about anthropology to be able to cherish the extra value of the time spent in a place and what a deep knowledge of its language, culture, and especially people brings.

9. What advice would you give to students studying social anthropology today?
Being patient and persistent when pursuing their research topic or field and being creative seem to me essential for looking at things differently. We do research today in a world that has already been thoroughly explored – by geographers, economists, political scientists, sociologists – and our contribution to existing knowledge comes from our disciplinary expertise of cultural variation, from the time we dedicate to listening to our field collaborators and from our creative use of a holistic perspective that allows us to interpret social life in new and useful ways. This requires patience and love for people during field research, patience and love for words during the writing period. They should be cultivated assiduously.

10. What text – whether a book or article – have you read recently that particularly impressed you?
One of the books that I have found myself quoting recently quite often is Faites danser votre cerveau (Get your brain to dance) by Lucy Vincent (published by Odile Jacob, Paris, 2018), a neurobiologist who uses ethnographic methods for this particular book. It reminds us that bodies matter and can engender thoughts, discourses, and actions, and that sometimes as anthropologists we forget this in theory while we don’t in practice: our living and experiencing together with our informers being the basis of what ethnography is about.

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