an interview with Tom Bratrud
This week, morethanhumanworlds interviews Tom Bratrud, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo. Tom’s research focuses on values, social life and political dynamics in the Pacific and Nordics. His current research examines everyday life with digital technology in rural Norway. Tom’s initial research focuses on the intersection of religion, morality and politics of land in Vanuatu. This work, based on 20 months of ethnographic fieldwork from 2010-2017, resulted in the monograph Fire on the Island: Fear, Hope and a Christian Revival in Vanuatu (2022, Berghahn Books). In 2022, Tom Bratrud was a Visiting Research Fellow in the Discipline of Anthropology at the University of Sydney, where he delivered a talk in the department and a masterclass within the Sydney Staff and Student Workshop on Anthropological Research Methods (SSSWARM) series.
Hello, Tom, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. To get us started, could you tell us how you became interested in the intersections of religion, morality, politics, and more recently, digital technologies, in the sites where you conduct fieldwork?
Hi, Sophie, and thanks for having me on the blog. I like to think that my thematical interests are ethnographically induced, but they have of course emerged in relation to some personal interests as well. Growing up in a rural valley in the Norwegian highlands, that I experienced to be a bit conform in my late teens, I was intrigued by studying how people around the world lead and make sense of their lives in potentially different ways than I was used to. I was also interested in trying to understand more of the norms and views that dominated and formed ways of being in the world where I grew up, including my own. I think these questions drew me to basic questions about how we live together as individuals and as communities in different settings.
When I first started my research in Vanuatu as part of my Master’s in 2010, I was interested in the intersection between traditional ecological knowledge and recent discourses on climate change. My fieldwork site became Ahamb Island in Northern Vanuatu, where rumours had it that the community had just celebrated their last New Year's Eve together “because of climate change.” However, it quickly became clear that the discourse of relocation mostly pertained to disputes about land and reef rights and moral ideas of how one ought to live together. Following these tensions throughout my first stint of fieldwork on Ahamb, I developed an interest in the connection between the material basis of people’s lives (e.g. controlling land and resources) and evaluations of how to be a good person (e.g. religion, worldviews, values, morality). This interest has followed me through my research in Vanuatu as well as in Norway.
My interest in digital technology developed from my keenness to study ethnographically the present-futures of places in rural Norway similar to where I grew up. Most places in rural Norway experience a population decline due to people leaving for studies and jobs in the cities. However, some areas experience a population growth of full-time or part-time ex-urban migrants who seek a different life than they have in the city. Yet, many migrants maintain their careers, networks and cultural ties to the city with the help of digital technology. Digital technology thus plays a key role in facilitating new social dynamics in these areas. However, I do not find the digital technology itself to be the most interesting, but rather how it forms part of new social, cultural, political, and economic collages. Through fieldwork on ex-urban migration with digital technology, I also became interested in the role of digital technology (including altorithms and social media) in people’s reality formation and understandings of self and other, as well as in a range of other contexts, like farming. These are issues I am currently writing about and that will eventually form the focus of my second book.
Tom's home town of Fagernes in the valley of Valdres in South-Eastern Norway.
Your recently published monograph, Fire on the Island: Fear, Hope and a Christian Revival in Vanuatu, draws on ethnographic fieldwork on the island of Ahamb (Vanuatu) to examine fear and hope as powerful sentiments that work together to become a potent driving force for change, but where the outcome can easily escape the initiators’ control. Could you tell us about your experience conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Vanuatu and specifically, how fear and hope manifested in bodily, sensory, or kinesthetic ways, alongside more discursive forms of expression?
First, I must say that I am very grateful for the opportunity to do fieldwork in Vanuatu with people on and from Ahamb Island. I have met some of the finest human beings I have ever known on Ahamb, and I cherish our enduring relationships in both research and on a personal level.
The fear/hope dynamic examined in the book springs out of a startling Christian revival movement that developed during my doctoral fieldwork on Ahamb in 2014-2015. The community was rife with some enduring conflicts over land rights and leadership at this time, which caused significant social and ontological insecurity. The epitome of the insecurity was the possibility of sorcery that people in conflict are feared to turn to in order to bring down their opponents and their families. In this context, the Christian revival movement, which was based on an immediate access to the power of the Holy Spirit (the spiritual manifestation of the Christian God), developed and gained a strong following. An important reason was followers’ desire to socially and morally rejuvenate the society. I have understood this desire as based on a fear of what island life was turning into and on a hope that it was possible to have it differently. Following from this, a key argument in the book is that experiences of fear and hope combined make people amass in ritual in order to create desired change.
With the revival movement, children and some adults started receving “spiritual gifts” from the Holy Spirit which enabled them to detect sorcery objects and other malevolent powers they found to create problems in the community, including making people sick and die. The disclosure of sorcery objects made the visionaries report a number of sorcerers coming to Ahamb to punish community members for taking away their powers. The increasing talk of sorcery made the idea of sorcery more real, which then created more fear because there really seemed to be sorcery around. However, it simultaneously created hope because there were people with the divine ability to detect and neutralise sorcery. In this sense, and based on Rene Descartes’ ideas from the mid 1600s(!), I argue that fear and hope can be seen as mutually constitutive feelings that in some ways are manifested in the presence of the other.
The feeling of hope could manifest in people’s bodily sensations, including chills, "lightness," shaking body parts, or fainting when praying or going to church events. Thess sensations indicated that the Holy Spirit was present and that one was connected to its powers. Succeeding in this connection was an indication of trust in the Holy Spirit’s work, which indicated a submission to hope that change was possible. This hope could also lead to sightings of angels, light, and shapes known from the Bible in the environment, which reinforced the hope that good powers could overcome malevolent powers. Several people made emotional confessions about how they could feel the power of the Holy Spirit and wanted to change their life, and some parties in dispute came together to reconcile in order to live more in line with God’s will for peace, as this was formualed in the visionaries’ messages from the Holy Spirit, and which further provided cosmological protection from sorcery.
Feelings of fear could also manifest in the body, including in itching, breathing problems, or experiences of a tense atmosphere. These were all indications of the presence of malevolent powers – or from another perspective, the person’s anxiety related to these. Some people could not sleep at night because they feared that sorcerers could come to hurt them, while others were afraid to get food in their gardens for the same reason, with the result that food stocks became low in some homes. In this space of heightened fear, anxiety, or insecurity, hearing footsteps outside one’s house at night could be attributed to sorcery (instead of a mundane dog or cat), branches moving in a tree could be a sign of invisible sorcerers planning an attack (instead of merely resulting from wind), and animals who behaved strangely were carefully watched and occasionally attacked as they could be sorcerers in disguise.
When I discuss fear and hope in this sense, I do not want to make a simplistic structuralist claim about a universal structure of human thought processes that exist in the form of binary oppositions. I hope I succeed in demonstrating that it is more complex and dynamic than that! However, I think the point put forward by Descartes about the generative potential of combined feelings of hope and fear still has some bearing for understanding the driving force of social movements in different contexts.
Tom and one of his grandfathers, Tomsen, holding a book of local songs that Tom collected and prepared for the community.
You are currently involved in a research project titled “Private Lives: Embedding Sociality at Digital ‘Kitchen-tables’.” Could you tell us a little more about the aims and objectives of this project, and the kinds of methodologies you are deploying in achieving them?
Yes, so Private Lives is a project led by Marianne Lien with Tuva Beyer Broch, Cecilia G. Salinas, and myself as postdocs. The backdrop for the project is the seminal work of Marianne Gullestad who has written extensively about the socio-cultural premises of everyday life in Norway. However, Gullestad’s fieldwork was conducted in the 1970s-1980s, before digital technology became ubiqutous and before other important societal changes in the region took place, including increased immigration from around the world and Norway’s economic boom following substantial oil and gas discoveries. Our aim in the project has been to conduct a ‘re-study’ of Norwegian everyday life in the current context where all these social changes are taken into account.
In trying to grasp the foundational principles of everyday sociality in the digital age, we have chosen four different field sites where we engage in both offline and online ethnographic fieldwork. Tuva is working with young adults and their everyday use of smartphones and social media, Cecilia is working with Norwegians with immigrant backgrounds who engage digital platforms to challenge racialized structures of exclusion, Marianne is working with the Indigenous Sámi population on the digitalization of reindeer herding and more-than-human sociality, and I am working with people in rural Norway on various everyday issues of digitalization, including ex-urban migration, new forms of belonging, and farming.
At the core of our methodology has been Sarah Pink et al.’s concept of a “non-digital centric approach to the digital.” This means that we approach digital technologies as only one part of a broader social field, rather than situating them at the center of the study. Our everyday research has therefore consisted of participant-observation and interviews both offline and online on the digital platforms people engage. Trying to go “all in” in this kind of fieldwork has been both rewarding and challenging, not least since all of us spend so much time on screens in our daily lives and regularly experience digital fatigue. We will soon have an article out in Ethnography entitled “New Forms of Home-Blindness” where we discuss our experiences with this methodology. Check it out and let us know what you think!
You teach a range of courses and workshops at the University of Oslo – from Development, the Ethnography of Oceania, and Religion and Cosmology, all the way through to Ethnographic Methods and Norwegian Life and Society. I’m curious to know what kinds of environment-focused interests, cares, or concerns stand out among your student cohorts? What sorts of more-than-human futures come up in the course of your conversations with them, and what role do they/you see for anthropology in imagining and crafting these futures?
I think our students in Oslo are generally interested in environment-related issues, and this can vary from climate change around the world, to philosophies and practices of deep ecology, to relationships between humans and non-humans, to how economic structures and power relations drive environmental change.
We have a pretty strong presence of staff working within environmental anthropology in Oslo. This means students are quickly introduced to the importance of studying how humans shape the environments we live in and how relations with the environment shape socio-cultural and political-economic life. Some students are quite concerned with climate change and environmental justice and want to “do something,” hands on. I think this is great, and I try to encourage students to follow their drive for this kind work for their Bachelor’s Thesis and Master’s projects, as well as engage in relevant student associations.
However, I am also noticing an increasing “climate fatigue” among more recent student cohorts. Some seem tired of apocalyptic future discourses, and maybe their older siblings’ and parents’ moralizing and worries, and just want to live and enjoy themselves a bit. I think this is important to recognize. I also think it is important to constantly find new ways of relating to, and talking about, the future of the planet and everyone who inhabits it in a way that can both feel relevant for young people and take into account the severity of the ongoing anthropogenic alterations of the biosphere and beyond.
Finally, Tom, what advice would you give to scholars and students interested in studying more-than-human worlds?
I think I will draw on my recent fieldwork in a Norwegian mountain community here. For those of us who have an interest in the more-than-human world, I think it is easy to moralize and critique the actions/non-actions and thinking/non-thinking of those who do not. But rather than merely critiquing those others, I think we also need to look at ourselves and the position from which we and others critique and analyze. An important lesson from my recent fieldwork is how easy it is for an educated, progressive, middle class individual to critique and have contempt others for not caring about climate change, biodiversity, wildlife, and planetary health. I find it important to try to see where these perspectives, as well as our own, come from and not become blind to whatever it is that is forming our views, including class and privilege. I am not necessarily talking about the social inequality between the “Global North” and “Global South” here, which is also important, of course, but also within the population of any particular town in the United States, Australia, or Norway.
For instance, in my mountain village fieldsite in Norway, working class research participants are criticized for their resistance towards electric vehicles and the preservation of mountain landscapes. However, this is not merely because they do not care about climate change and environmental degradation. For some, it is about mountain landscapes being a potential source of income, that they cannot afford an electric vehicle (but would like one). and feeling their dignity hampered when confronted with their “backwards” attitudes towards environmental issues. For others, resistance can demonstrate solidarity with kin, friends, and acquaintances who feel their integrity challenged by a critical and moralizing progressive middle class. As Matthew Huber argues in his book, Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet (Verso, 2022), I think studying peoples’ relationship to more-than-human worlds needs to take these kinds of complexities into account and find ways that can unite the ecological and material interests of as many on this planet as possible.
A photo of Ahamb Island, taken from mainland Malekula, with Tom's big brother Phelix in front after they paddled over in the canoe to go to the gardens.
"a key argument in Fire on the Island is that experiences of fear and hope combined make people amass in ritual in order to create desired change"
"I think it is important to constantly find new ways of relating to, and talking about, the future of the planet and everyone who inhabits it in a way that can both feel relevant for young people and take into account the severity of the ongoing anthropogenic alterations of the biosphere and beyond"
"studying peoples’ relationship to more-than-human worlds needs to take these kinds of complexities into account and find ways that can unite the ecological and material interests of as many on this planet as possible"
"we approach digital technologies as only one part of a broader social field, rather than situating them at the center of the study"