The Alumni Interview: 10 Questions for Luisa Schneider

April 22, 2022

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 research fellow between 2019 and 2020 in the Department ‘Law & Anthropology’. I work on violence, intimacy and law in West Africa and Europe. I am interested in how people negotiate space to meet their most intimate needs in life and I also study the laws and institutions which help or hinder such efforts. During my postdoc, I began long-term collaborative ethnographic research with unhoused people in Leipzig, Germany. Together, we show how contemporary welfare states tacitly tie basic rights – e.g. parenthood, family life, protection – to tenancy-protected housing and what that means for those who must do without. This allows us to shed light on the effects of individualized social suffering in postwelfare societies and on the discrepancy between the state’s promises of basic rights and protections and their practical realization.

2. Where do you work now?
I am now Assistant Professor in the department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and a member of the research programme Mobilities, Beliefs and Belonging: Confronting Global Inequalities and Insecurities (MOBB), where I combine teaching and research.

3. How did the time you spent at the MPI shape your current career?
The time at MPI had a profound impact on my career.
As a socially committed scholar, my work is political in outlook, decolonial in approach, collaborative in practice, and accessible in output. Since I work on social issues, it is important to me to pursue long-term, socially committed ethnographic research, deconstruct barriers between academia and the world, and not only advance science but also try to find ways in which society can benefit from the knowledge gained. During my postdoc, the community at the MPI always encouraged my public dissemination and policy efforts. I had access to outlets to feed my research findings back to my research communities and spread awareness in newspapers, on television, and in expert forums. I was also able build lasting connections with practitioners and policymakers, where my findings now flow into policy decisions and practical approaches to homelessness and securing basic rights.

4. When you think back on your time at the MPI, what stands out most strongly?
Three main things made the institute stand out: comparative analysis, the interdisciplinary focus on law and anthropology, and the opportunity to not only advance academic debates but also find ways for society to benefit from the knowledge gained. If we wish to enhance the relevance of our discipline and inspire upcoming generations to push the current political, social, and practical limits of the social sciences, we must work together, not just alongside each other, to create collaborations between anthropologists working on different issues, across disciplines, and with the world at large. The Institute brings together the largest cohort of anthropologists I have ever experienced in one place, but at the same time it is not a bubble removed from the world. Instead, it actively fosters employees’ engagement with each other and with the world at large.

5. Do you still have connections with the MPI, and if so, what kind of contact and with whom?
I continue to be a research associate, I do visit frequently, and I have several ongoing collaborations, one of which is an exhibition in the state parliament of Saxony-Anhalt which showcases how anthropologists can use micro-analysis to tackle pressing global questions.

6. What is your current research topic?
I am currently working on an ethnographic monograph which analyses houselessness and the individualization of social suffering.  In international human rights law, privacy and intimacy are basic rights. Privacy encompasses the non-public sphere, the domestic arena, the home, family, and private life. Intimacy includes, inter alia, one’s inner, emotional, and sexual life. However, these rights and their protection are linked to an approach that takes for granted that the private sphere is separated from the public sphere by the walls of one’s home. Many laws rely on this differentiation: think for instance of laws related to domestic violence and the practical limitations of restraining orders; custody laws that prevent parents without housing from having custody of children; or laws forbidding sexual intimacy, exposing or washing oneself, and even sleeping in public. Independent housing is thus intimately linked to safety and wellbeing; it provides the space to secure one’s most fundamental needs in life without intrusion or surveillance. But what happens when one has no home, no walls to create the conditions that allow intimacy to be lived? My book examines:
1. How do houseless people live privacy and intimacy? How do they practice relationships and family life? What do home, safety and belonging mean to them?
2. How do houseless persons perceive their legal agency and how do they interact with the state and with service providers? Do they take steps to realize their rights and to seek the protection of the state? If not, what alternative mechanisms do they develop?
3. How do different policy and practice approaches shape houseless persons’ rights to privacy and intimacy and their ability to live independent lives? Are intimacy – and with it, safety, love, and belonging – not considered basic needs? Does service provision create a subconscious prejudice vis-à-vis houseless people as not having the same immediate needs or rights as others, or is something else at play?
The book exposes the extent to which European societies have individualized social suffering in their attempts to responsibilize those under their governance and to create an impression of safety and security. Houselessness offers a lens to understand the consequences of the reduction, outsourcing, and fragmentation of public services and welfare that has occurred throughout Europe over the past decade. It makes it possible to examine the consequences of changes to the democratic contract that move it away from a focus on care (on the side of states) towards one of responsibility (on the side of citizens). Hence, taking Germany as a case study, my book probes into the dynamics between states and their commitments to basic human rights on the one hand, and vulnerable groups who fall under their jurisdiction but are deprived of the benefits of their protection on the other.

7. What are your plans for the future?
During my previous research, my houseless research collaborators helped make me aware of one of the great unspoken truths of prison and confinement research: some people seek imprisonment. While the logic of prisons as places of punishment has long been a topic of scholarly and political concern, the role of prisons as places of opportunity has received much less attention. Yet prisons are also places in which people try to increase their health, wellbeing, and social participation, reunite with their families, and achieve upward social mobility. When prison offers a way to tap into (mental health) care and escape forms of deprivation, this does not teach us primarily about prisons as institutions of care, but rather about the violence experienced by certain categories of people and their experiences of confinement outside of prisons. This then calls for theoretical and empirical innovation, in order to overcome academia’s traditional understandings of crime, punishment, and (social) security and to address the confining impact of social harm. In my upcoming work, I will thus focus on establishing a new research agenda on care and confinement. By taking a comparative approach, I hope to empirically connect local processes of care and confinement to new forms of penalizing and criminalizing with regard to vulnerable groups in particular.
Another cornerstone of my research turns inward and looks at our discipline, at the nexus between ethnographic unpredictability and institutional demands and how we navigate research, academia, and the university. I ask what anthropologists and institutions can and should do to challenge and deconstruct violent structures, prevent harm where possible, and offer support while recognizing the unpredictability of human interactions. Following a feminist and decolonial approach, I closely collaborate with scholars and students to realize this vision of an engaged, responsible academia.

8. What are the strengths of anthropology in comparison with other social sciences?
I believe that what justifies our discipline today is our unique ability to combine classic anthropological activities such as localized fieldwork with emerging global questions and pressing issues of our time. To me, anthropology is a way of life which includes the readiness to examine, question, and challenge preconceived wisdoms, to decentre the self, and to approach questions from a multitude of angles.

9. What advice would you give to students studying social anthropology today?
Anthropology allows us to explore the human condition across the globe in all its diversity. By accompanying people in their lives over the long term, we arrive at not only a deeper understanding of people’s lived experiences, but also new insights into the limits and possibilities of comparative analysis and how we can sustainably live together in our diverse world. Anthropology is a toolkit, not a straitjacket, so I would encourage students to read widely, engage in self-analysis, be ready to question all things, particularly themselves, and strive to leave their own imprint on the discipline.

10. What text – whether a book or article – have you read recently that particularly impressed you?
One text I read recently is Cheryl Mattingly’s “Defrosting concepts, destabilizing doxa: Critical phenomenology and the perplexing particular.” Anthropological Theory 19(4): 415-439 (2019). She asks how social sciences can problematize the very concepts that undergird its own frameworks once they have become canonical and offers a phenomenological approach to critiquing concepts.

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