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photographer/social anthropologist


NEW article: 'Self-reliant' refugees as 'development actors': Dignity or disawoval of responsibility?

The case of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia

In this article which is based on anthropological fieldworks among Eritrean refugees in Hitsats and Adi Harush camps in North-Ethiopia and out of camp in the capital city Addis Ababa between 2019 and 2022, I report on how the new Ethiopian policy/law environment for refugee response has affected access to formal employment and own business licenses for this third largest refugee group in the country. This policy/law change in Ethiopia was linked to the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants and the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) it included, which marked a global shift in handling protracted displacement. A move from refugees’ dependency on humanitarian aid to dignified self-reliance through economic inclusion, which in turn would contribute to development in host communities, was envisioned. Ethiopia followed up with ‘Nine Pledges’ that went far in promising economic inclusion for refugees. The revision of the country’s refugee proclamation sought to provide the juridical backing for this new refugee response which, initially, seemed to secure their right to work. However, my findings show that access to formal employment and business licenses is still denied refugees unless they are selected for a joint national-international project with external funding. I therefore argue that, rather than securing self-reliance and with it, refugees’ contribution to development, this new policy/law environment for refugee response in Ethiopia represents – in line with neoliberal governmentality – a disavowal of responsibility for their livelihoods. This study thus counters the general opinion that the law/policy shift in Ethiopia was ‘progressive’.

Download the published article in Forum for Development Studies.

Book: Revolutionary struggles and girls' education

At the frontiers of gender norms in North-Ethiopia

Based on anthroplogical research and experience in Tigray since 1993, this monograph is about the gender norms that do not necessarily change even though women participate in liberation struggles and girls get access to education. This issue is seen in relation to prevailing neoliberal development discourse where gender equality is understood as parity between girls and boys, women and men, and does not touch upon deep-rooted and hard-lived relations of power in the case of gender and sexuality. Based on the central role that education has gained in the forwarding of development, it is also asked how exactly education can change anything when based on rote learning/memorization and does not encourage critical thinking. This monograph has also (unintended) become an historical document about what is now being lost in the ongoing civil war in Tigray.

Availabel from Lexington Books or Amazon.

Co-photographing in north-western Tigray, Ethiopia

The argument in this article, which starts from the assertion that anthropological research is always dependent on cross-cultural collaboration – whether acknowledged or not – is based on my experience as a photographic artist and photographing anthropologist. The photographic portraits that resulted from Tigrayan people taking control over their own self-representation in a process of “co-photographing” made me “see” the subtle socio-cultural dynamics of layering communication mediated through exposure and containment, visibility and invisibility. However, Western ethical guidelines that require the anonymization of participants, and which makes it difficult to acknowledge people’s contributions to our research, reaffirm, rather than challenge the presumed inequality between the researcher and the researched.

Read the article in AnthroVison 5.2.

Negotiating gender norms in the context of equal access to education in north-western Tigray, Ethiopia

Girls in Tigray region in North Ethiopia have over the past decade started to outnumber boys up through primary and secondary education in terms of enrolment rates. But underage marriage still hampers rural girls pursuit of education in north-western Tigray. Left unchallenged by governmental efforts to address marriage of underage girls is the female virginity ideal and the burden of sexual morality which girls continue to shoulder, and that sustains the practice. It is also a fact that despite positive enrolment rates, girls score on average lower than boys on the national exams. This article explores whether the modesty that girls are socialised into through the virginity ideal in order to acquire respect in the community impinges on the assertive drive and energy necessary for educational success. What will be addressed here are gender norms that continue to be reproduced in spite of the signicant changes in Ethiopia's laws and policies to amend former gender injustice, and which have brought unprecedented numbers of Ethiopian girls into school.

Download the article published in Gender and Education here.

Kan Trump stoppe kvinners abortrett?

Vi må stole på kvinnene i abortspørsmålet, sa den mannlige ungdomsrepresentanten fra Uganda i sin presentasjon på den afrikanske abortkonferansen i Addis Ababa, Etiopia i november. Han høstet stor applaus fra de afrikanske delegatene som var i overveldende flertall på konferansen. Trumps gjeninnføring av den globale munnkurvsregelen (global gag rule) som forbyr statlig støtte til organisasjoner som tilbyr, eller gir informasjon om, trygg abort, viser med all tydelighet mangel på tillit til kvinner i spørsmålet om abort. Men vil kvinner og deres støttespillere la seg stoppe av USAs tredje runde med global munnkurv i abortspørsmålet? Kronikk i Bergens Tidende 20. februar 2017

Imagining the Real: The Photographic Image and Imagination in Knowledge Production

Concerned with rethinking photography in visual anthropology this exploratory discussion starts from the presumption that presence in photographs is evoked through absence of the real. What is not problematized in photographic theory and visual anthropology is that photographs thus depend on imagination for their interpretative connection to reality. My argument sees photographic practice as interference, which pushes the medium past the implicit positivist premise for visual knowledge production in anthropology. Furthermore, when understanding the ability to imagine as movements in reason, the separation between imagination and reason, presumed necessary for the scientific production of knowledge, is also challenged.

Download the article published in Visual Anthropology in 2017 here.

Modige jenter som fredsprisvinner Malala Yousafzai fronter forandring og gir oss håp. Men hva skal egentlig til for at utdanning utfordrer ulikhet mellom kjønnene? 

Les kronikken på forskning.no

Whose authority?

The religious conditioning of decision-making in the context of right to reproductive choice in north-western Tigray, Ethiopia

The discussion in this article takes as point of departure the common assumption that committed religiosity hinders contraceptive use and abortion as the person would be obliged to comply with what is perceived as God’s will and give birth to the number of children He gives. However, among the women (aged 18-75) who were included in this ethnographic study in one rural and one semi-urban area in Asgede Tsimbla Wereda in north-western Tigray in North-Ethiopia, there existed considerable confusion and opposing opinions about what the Orthodox Christian Church’s official stand on contraceptive use actually is. Even priests were not in agreement on the issue when asked individually. Furthermore, the interpretive indeterminacy in the common-sense understanding of the transition between God’s power and the person’s control, as reflected in the concept of ïddïl (fate/destiny), points to the uncertainty entailed when attempting to define how religion conditions decision-making. Considered significant in women’s narrative accounts when legitimisation of contraceptive use is at issue, are the agentive negotiations involved when moving authority, in a discursive sense, away from the church and the field of religion to the field of science where the government backs women’s reproductive choice as a right.

Download the published article in Annales d'Ethiopie 2015 here.

Having fewer children makes it possible to educate them all

An ethnographic study of fertility decline in north-western Tigray, Ethiopia

Education is presumed to play a decisive role in decreasing fertility rates. This article is about the role of education and other factors in fertility decline in the context of current Ethiopian policies on population and sustainable development, based on an ethnographic study of women’s agency and girls’ pursuit of education in one semi-urban and one rural area in north-western Tigray, in northern Ethiopia. Long-term environmental insecurity and scarcity of arable land for the younger generation in this area serve as important background. Another central issue in the study was the religious conditioning of women’s choices, which stood out most clearly in the case of contraceptive use. In those cases where women’s contestations of the authority of the Orthodox Christian priests concurred with current Ethiopian policies on fertility decline, this was based on what women defined as their own authority in reproductive matters linked with flexible adaptation to their life-situations.

Download the article published in Reproductive Health Matters in 2014 here.

At the frontiers of change?

Women and girls' pursuit of education in north-western Tigray, Ethiopia

This anthropological PhD-project that investigates gendered processes of social reproduction and change from the perspective of women, has been located in two communities in Asgede Tsimbla Wereda in the north-western zone of Tigray region: the semi-urban market town and administrative centre of the wereda, Endabaguna, and the rural lowland sub-district, Tabia Mayshek. In order to explore the complexity of contemporary processes, the ethnographic enquiry has made use of a dialogical combination of intersecting methods and open-ended research foci where women’s and girls’ agency, their decisions-making strategies and negotiations of power vis-à-vis different authorities, have been central. The theoretical concern in this thesis is placed in the structure-agency debate with a special focus on how practice can have a structural effect in processes of change when taking place in silence, and hence, as opposed to relying on a critical discourse to emerge. More...

The doctoral thesis can be downloaded from BORA - Bergen Open Research Archive.

Read an interview about this research project on UoB Global.

Transnational/Global Feminism: Issues, Contestations, Challenges

Opening address to the international seminar 25-26 May 2010, Bergen

Feminism's political project of transforming structural inequity based on gender continue to be contested by political and religious institutions that see feminism as a threat to the foundation of their hegemony in the North as well as in the South, by both women and men. As acknowledged by many, and also seen in many of the abstracts received for this seminar; it is much safer to talk about women and gender than feminism. The fact that feminism is also a political strategy, or rather strategies in plural, continues to make it difficult to handle within academia. More...

Girls' educational strategies and visual practice

A gendered case from Tigray, Ethiopia

There seems to be a prevailing assumption among many stakeholders in the field of education that cultural factors are decisive in hindering girls’ access to, enrolment in and achievements through education. The emphasis in this paper is on the need for extensive empirical data to nuance our understanding as to how education, culture and gender intersect with contemporary processes of change. My argument is that we have to utilise a more dynamic understanding of culture that sees beyond traditional practices like early marriage and gendered work burden at home. In this paper I am concerned with how specific understandings of femaleness influence girls’ educational pursuit. By utilising photography as part of the research methodology, I will draw attention to how Tigrayan girls choose to stage their self-presentations in front of my camera. These self-representations are seen as one intake to how rural girls in Asgede Tsimbla wereda (district) in Tigray, Ethiopia negotiate their educational strategy within a culturally informed understanding of femaleness.

This paper was presented to the e-conference of UNGEI E4, April 12 - May 14, 2010 in the thematic group Poverty, intersecting inequalities and girls' right to education. You can also download the paper directly here.

Evocative Encounters

An exploration of artistic practice as a visual research method

The main objective for this article is to discuss a rethinking of knowledge production that involves the incorporation of artistic practice as one aspect of its methodology. The point of departure is still photography as one such practice, and the fact that it is almost entirely banished from mainstream social anthropological methodology and analysis. To acquire a new position for photography within social science research practice, a re-positioning of both the researcher and the role of the image itself is sought. It is suggested that a visual methodology based on still photography must move beyond the interpretational boundary of the realist representational paradigm and approach the expressive aspect of the photographic medium. The empirical foundation for this article is the author’s experience as an art photographer as well as photographing social anthropologist in the northern province of Ethiopia, Tigray. Download the article.

Saleni, photograph me!

On photographic representation and the person in Tigray, Etiopia

The article takes as its point of departure the discursive aspect of photographic representation and practice. This implies that photographs do more than merely reproduce what was there at the time. Photographs do also produce specific views of the world and the persons in it, and can therefore reaffirm the person by constituting a particular self-image. This point forms the basis for investigating local applications of photographic practice concerning the person in Tigray. A general preference for the "whole body" as a prerequisite for photographic self-representation has been compared with discourses concerned with aspects of personal integrity and bodily autonomy.

Keywords: Photography as discursive practice, self-identity, self-(re)presentation, visual biographic narratives, Tigray.

Download the article in Norwegian or English.

Are "free choice", "force" and "false consciousness" the only alternatives when analysing women's agencies?

In this paper for the conference Crossroads (2005) I address "free choice", "force" and "false consciousness" empirically based in my social anthropological research on women’s agency in western Tigray in North-Ethiopia (Mjaaland 2004). The discussion is theoretically founded on Pierre Bourdieu’s (1977) theory of practice where structure is extended from the cohesive and coercive functioning of social institutions, to being embodied as well as reproduced within individual agents through practice. I do not however intend to exclude the potential for individuals – in specific situations – to move beyond structural constraints, but at the core of my discussion is the analytical problem of differentiating subjective choice and individual agency from structural dispositions, and thus, "free choice" from "false consciousness". Consequently, how can we be so sure that our western belief in "free choice" is not in itself instructed by "false consciousness"? More...


A gendered perspective on war and peace processes with focus on Tigrayan women's strategies

This article is published in Prospects for peace, security and human rights in Africa's Horn (2004). The book materialised from the Rafto seminar 2003, the year Paulos Tesfageorigis received the Thorolf Rafto Prize for Human Rights for his year-long work for the people of Eritrea in order to better their rights and democratic influence through peaceful means and dialogue. More...

Ane suqh' ile. I keep quiet

Focusing on women’s agency in western Tigray, North-Ethiopia

The Tigrayan revolution (1975-1991), where thirty percent of the fighters at some point were women, is a strong expression of women’s political agency in the region. One research question was therefore if this was just an exception, a unique historical possibility to escape a traditionally subordinated position as women, or if this was an act partly made possible by this very socio-historical context? Hence, another major question to be asked in this thesis was how social and cultural practices generate individuation in the Tigrayan context, and further how gendered implications instruct individual agency. More...

The thesis can be downloaded from BORA - Bergen Open Research Archive.


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