I am a professor in Cultural Anthropology at Uppsala University, where I am currently also the head of department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology. My research and scholarship have mainly focused on conflict and post conflict situations. I teach undergraduate and graduate courses in cultural anthropology, conflict anthropology and African studies. I am particularly interested in ethnographic methods and have been developing teaching curricula in this field.
I have conducted most of my fieldwork in Liberia and Sierra Leone. In addition to understanding the civil wars in the two countries, I have in particular focused my research on issues around youth participation in rebel movements and youth in precarious urban environments in the aftermath of civil wars. Another prevalent research focus of mine has been gender.
My regional research interest has been a long-term commitment. In 1992, as a first-year student of anthropology I was en route to Madagascar when took a detour to Sierra Leone in order to re-investigate the contents of a journal article I had found dubious. Whether the article was right or wrong turned out harder to determine than what I thought but I fell in love with Sierra Leone and West Africa, and never made it to Madagascar. Since that time – first as a PhD student and then as a researcher – I have carried out fieldwork in Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ghana. I have also led a research project on Somalia, which included fieldwork in Kenya and Dubai. I have studied all these fields with a similar amount of passion for good ethnography.
I see myself first and foremost as a fieldworker, a person who unravels and systematizes complexities of the “real” world with ethnographic methods. What seems at first strange, becomes familiar once one learns to understand it. For instance, the longer I hung out with former combatants in Liberia and Sierra Leone the more familiar their world became to me. Even the crimes they had committed began to look logical in the framework in which they were operating – although by saying this does not legitimate what they did. Understanding how the evil works does not mean the same as granting it a moral acceptance.
This process of understanding is a complex one, and takes a lot of time. As an anthropologist, I emphasize the importance of our role as mediators of cultural differences. It is urgent that the knowledge of the people we study is connected with the knowledge, which we circulate in the media or in our daily conversations here in the privileged North. Often, the attempts to cross this knowledge gap fails, and the attempts to explain these differences turn it into something ‘exotic’, even incommensurable. We cultural and social anthropologists have a tendency to only present our findings within our own in-group of anthropologists, or to be lost in a maelstrom of details. Whilst not giving up our detailed work, we should, however, improve our communication outwards – with other disciplines and fields of knowledge, and also with the larger public.
Over the years I have intentionally worked in multidisciplinary research projects, I have published in multidisciplinary environments and I have engaged with media, policymakers and practitioners. It has been difficult work, and at times I have felt the urge to drop out and hide within my discipline, but such a retreat would be to voluntarily re-marginalize myself. “Anthropology should have changed the world” claims Thomas Hyland Eriksen, slightly polemically. Perhaps we did not, perhaps there is not even a proper anthropological “we” to talk about, but it is still not too late to change the world.
Currently I am working on two research projects: one on circular migration in and out of West Africa, and one with a focus on the roles of research assistants in conflict studies. The first project is solidly anthropological, whilst the second is a cross-disciplinary project with political scientists. Both the projects are funded by the Swedish Research Council.