Date of Degree

9-2019

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Anthropology

Advisor

Jane Schneider

Committee Members

Avram Bornstein

John F. Collins

Subject Categories

Social and Cultural Anthropology

Keywords

Northern Ireland, fear, history, healing, possibility, transformation

Abstract

Based on fourteen months of ethnographic fieldwork in one neighborhood of Belfast called Ballynafeigh / the upper Ormeau Road in 2006–2007, I argue we need to pay closer attention to the “inconspicuous transformations” that may have been occurring in parallel to the official peace process. Walter Benjamin notes that “refined and spiritual things” do “make their presence felt in the class struggle. They manifest themselves in this struggle as courage, humour, cunning, and fortitude.” Benjamin states that “the past strives to turn toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history. A historical materialist must be aware of this most inconspicuous of transformations” (Benjamin 1999, 246, IV).

The definition of “historical events” needs to be much broader to incorporate lived experience: “hidden histories” need to be articulated, including “listening for the histories that others produce for themselves” (Schneider and Rapp 1995, 7), keeping the richness and depth of people’s experiences at the center of ethnography. This dissertation builds on studies of the everyday while also looking for the transcendent in the supposedly insignificant and uneventful (Benjamin 1988, 1999; Stoler 2002a). The histories that compose most of this dissertation emerge directly from my conversations with people who lived in this neighborhood, people who, I would argue, concerned themselves not only with the “crude and material things” but as well with the “refined and spiritual things,” and whose struggles and joys recounted herein reflect precisely the “courage, humour, cunning, and fortitude” that Benjamin mentions.

Within the section that follows, “Fear,” I will show through my ethnographic fieldwork that people in one Belfast neighborhood were in the process of various “inconspicuous transformations.” These transformations were complicated by fears, a lack of trust, and senses of loss. I offer histories of emotions such as fear and other phenomena, including trust, loss, transformation, and healing, and I ask what these histories can tell us about this liminal time of “not-war-not-peace” (Nordstrom 2004, 166). I find that following rumors was an instructive way to navigate into the histories of fear, loss, and trust in particular. In the case of fear, I argue that fear itself – including the fear of rumor – was a form of violence that impacted people’s lives. Through the histories of fear told to me by people in this area of Belfast, the reader will have insight into the quotidian experience of fear as a form of violence, which is often overlooked in favor of more spectacular and acutely violent “historical events.” Rumor is also instructive in the case of trust and loss, two further features of this liminal time with which people grappled. I argue histories of trust and loss offer insights into the uncertainty and anxiety that existed during my fieldwork, particularly the lack of trust in institutions and discomfort with dramatic social, economic, and political changes that were occurring in this “new era.”

In the following section, “Possibility,” I shift toward questions of “spaces of possibility” (Collins 2015). Within these chapters, the “inconspicuous transformations” that were partly revealed through rumor and histories of trust and loss in the previous chapters take on a slightly more hopeful light, though tempered by the ongoing struggles revealed through these histories. I argue that some people were indeed finding – and creating – ways to “deal with the past,” as it is often euphemistically put in Northern Ireland’s policy discourse, and that social relationships and local peacebuilding efforts were critical to this. The transformations of some of this neighborhood’s residents are revealed through a series of narratives focusing on insights they had or decisions they made. Transformations and possibilities are also revealed through the intertwining of friendship, humor, and faith, though these are tempered by the conflictual, violent past. This dissertation will then broaden its focus to consider the ways in which the historical narratives about Northern Ireland are told in museum exhibits and “Troubles tours,” and ends by arguing that museums can potentially be spaces of healing, creativity, and mental health.

This dissertation is the result of fourteen months of ethnographic fieldwork with residents, neighborhood workers, and police in this area of Belfast. In addition to many informal conversations and in-depth semi-structured interviews, often lasting 3–6 hours at people’s homes and sometimes repeated with the same people, I carried out participant observation by attending multiple residents’ meetings as well as parties, festivals, and religious services, volunteering with older people, chatting with constables in the break room and offices of the local police station, spending time with people in local pubs and social clubs, attending the local unionist/loyalist bonfire and observing parades and the posting of Union flags, watching Northern Irish comedy clips and documentaries with people I knew, and regularly observing team meetings at a local non-profit.

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