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Monday, 13 May 2013

Agency in the time of Structural Adjustment: Social perspectives on contemporary Greece

Dimitrios Gkintidis

The workshop “Agency in the time of Structural Adjustment: Social perspectives on contemporary Greece” took place on the 9th of May 2013 at the European Studies Centre. The workshop was convened by Dimitrios Gkintidis in the context of the 2012/2013 A.G. Leventis Fellowship at SEESOX with the administrative support of Ms Julie Adams. Its aim was to bring together social anthropologists working on different ethnographic case studies in contemporary Greece, and at the same time to implicate a wider audience from various disciplinary backgrounds.

After the introductory remarks from Dimitrios Gkintidis (St Antony’s College, Oxford), Othon Anastasakis (St Antony’s College, director of SEESOX and the ESC, Oxford) welcomed guests and participants and emphasized the importance of a nuanced and multileveled understanding of social processes in Greece within the recent conjuncture of the debt crisis and policies of Structural Adjustment.

The first session consisted of Renee Hirschon’s (St Peter’s College, Oxford) opening speech, chaired by Kostas Skordyles (Modern Languages Department, University of Oxford). Building on a decades-long ethnographic experience in contemporary Greece, Renee Hirschon provided with an insightful overview of a series of cultural features that pervade practices and discourses in Greece. These include particular perceptions of time, personality, and autonomy. Through examples such as name days, punctuality (and the lack of it), and defiance to hierarchy, Renee Hirschon sketched a holistic account of Greek culture. This intriguing opening speech entailed a heated discussion, revolving around the class, spatial, and temporal variations of these cultural features, their dynamics within Greece or the “West”, as well as the wider questioning of the heuristic potential of holistic approaches.

The second session, titled “Collective Action and Social Agency”, consisted of the presentations of Georgios Agelopoulos (University of Macedonia) and Dimitris Dalakoglou (University of Sussex), discussed by Olga Onuch (Nuffield College, Oxford), and chaired by Carolina Kobelinsky (St Antony’s College, Oxford). Georgios Agelopoulos’s presentation focused on citizens’ initiatives in suburban areas of Thessaloniki, and namely new practices of production and exchange arising in complementarity with (or as a transformation of) protest politics. Dimitris Dalakoglou’s presentation spoke of the spatial reconfiguration of the centre of Athens, during the last 20 years, and the relevance of these changes with political and ideological processes, both on a grassroots level as well as within the field of power. Olga Onuch raised the issue of the extent to which current citizens’ initiatives in Greece differ radically from previous forms of organization (e.g. the old cooperative movement), while also pointing out the political modelling of public space in other historical conjunctures and geographical settings. A large part of the following discussion was focused on the political dynamics of these processes, both in regards to the Greek government and its fragile legitimacy among large disenfranchised parts of urban populations, as well as in regards to new emerging political powers and parties.

The third session, titled “National Imaginary, Global Realities”, had a focus on the complex interplay of local discourses, national representations, and supranational economic and political realities –that have become more than evident in the case of Greece with the direct involvement of the EU, the ECB, and the IMF in the restructuring of Greek economy and the austerity policies of “internal devaluation”. Drawing from ethnographic examples in provincial Greece, Daniel Knight (LSE) and Dimitrios Gkintidis (St Antony’s College, Oxford) spoke of the perceptions of prosperity and poverty in the regions of Trikala and Evros respectively, as well as of the symbolic points of reference through which the crisis is understood –namely a nationally mediated collective memory, but with interesting regional and class differentiations. The session was chaired by Roulla Kaminara (St Antony’s College, Oxford), while Kerem Ӧktem (St Antony's College, Oxford) took part in the panel as a discussant. His comments focused on the ways that the crisis has induced a blow to the ontological certainties of Greek nationalism, in contrast to the perceived past dominance of Greek economy; in fact, interesting comparisons were drawn during the discussion, not only between the two ethnographic case studies, but also in regards to neighbouring countries in the South Eastern European periphery –namely Turkey, which seems to be going through its own period of national self-confidence.

The fourth session of the workshop consisted of Dimitris Papanikolaou (St Cross College, Oxford) drawing on the previous presentations and discussions and outlining a set of stakes pervading the current crisis: the anxiety of modernization/westernization reframed in terms of a failure, the body and affect in the time of decaying certainties, familiar and familial metaphors of the crisis, and the disenchantment of post-national narratives. Moreover, this presentation also pointed out the ambivalent positioning of Greek Studies within the current conjuncture: from a precarious and gradually marginalized academic field during the previous two decades, the economic crisis has brought Greek Studies scholars and their work back within the centre of much attention –not only scholar. The open discussion that followed indeed made clear that the awareness of this positioning also entails specific responsibilities and roles to be assumed. If the crisis is to be thought in terms of a rupture, with both liberating and regressing prospects, the academia and its politics will soon have to make their own difficult choices.

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