Category Archives: Notes from the Field

On Facebook, Death and Memorialisation

Over at the UCL Social Networking Sites and Social Sciences Project, Danny Miller writes about his research at a London hospice where he has been exploring the resonance of new media at the end of life:

Alongside my ethnographic research in The Glades I have now been working for over a year alongside The Hospice of St Francis. When I am in the UK I try to spend a day a week interviewing their patients who are mainly terminal cancer patients. I was delighted to hear this winter that the wonderful hospice director Dr Ros Taylor was awarded an MBE in this year’s honours list. My intention in working for the Hospice was a concern that a project of this size should also have an applied or welfare aspect where we could see the direct benefit. The initial work was simply an attempt to see how the hospice could benefit from new media. The report was published on my website, but once I was working with them I realised that in a way the hospice was the clearest example of what the whole team have endeavoured to demonstrate through this blog.

The hospice movement represents no kind of technical or medical advancement. It is entirely the product of a transformation in collective consciousness. Previously it was assumed that when people knew they were dying this was tantamount to a stage in merely their withdrawal from the world. We talk about ‘investing in our children’ as though there were long-term financial assets. The same logic would condemn the dying as of limited value. The Hospice movement was all about saying that knowing someone is terminal should be seen as an opportunity. It is no longer a medical issue, they will not be cured, instead we can concentrate on their quality of life and make this stage of life, since that is what it is, as enjoyable and fulfilling as it could be. Everything that Dr Taylor says and does demonstrates this, as does my colleague in this research Kimberley McLaughlin a senior manager of the hospice.

On reflection this is perhaps our single most important finding also as anthropologists of social media. People become fixated on the technological advances of new media. What each device can now be capable of – the latest app or smartphone or platform. These certainly feature throughout our work. But the vast majority of our blog posts are not about that. Instead they describe changes in the same collective consciousness: the social uses that people creatively imagine for these media as part of their lives.

The two issues come together in my observations of Facebook in relation to death and memorialisation. One of my early informants was a woman who felt that she wanted to use the experience of terminal cancer to help educate the wider world about her experience. A subject people tend to avoid but need to gain a better understanding of. I last saw her six days before she died and she was quite clear that using Facebook as almost a daily blog had enabled her to do just that. I am hoping (if I obtain the funding) to make a film based on her and other patients who have used Facebook in this manner.

I would be equally positive about the ways people have found to use Facebook in memorialisation and grief. Previously we have tended to use highly formal and religious institutionalised frames for dealing with death. As I argued in my book Tales From Facebook, this was out of synch with changes in our notion of the authenticity of the individual. Where once we took formal posed pictures, now we like to capture images that seem spontaneous, informal and thereby more ‘real’ to us. Similarly we needed a form of memorialisation that contained this element of personalisation and immediacy. People on Facebook can put both serious and jokey memories and do so at a time of their choosing. I find these sites poignant and effective. I don’t find other social media sites, such as Twitter or Instagram, as having the same potential, so I hope we retain this capacity of Facebook.

But the point is that the inventors of Facebook were certainly not thinking about its relationship to death or memorialisation. Rather, as in the case of the invention of the hospice movement, this reflects a change in our collective imagination in what we could potentially do in relation to death and grief. This is why we argue it is anthropology rather than more tech-driven studies of new media that are most suited to understanding what social media actually become. Most of these reports reflect not the technological potential, but the imaginative realisation of social media.




Tracing continuity between childhood and adulthood: body attachments and practices that persist in a growing self

Valentini Sampethai, Goldsmiths University

One day in the summer I turned eighteen, I was sitting on the deck of a boat with my friend Danae listening to the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks”. At some point, she turned and said to me, “Isn’t it sad, we’re not teenagers anymore?”.

We both agreed that none had felt any significant difference, nor had assumed any particular air of seriousness after our symbolic entry into adulthood. Already childhood had become idealized, a focus of nostalgia, although probably none of us had had a trouble-free childhood without its dark moments of fear, pain, and anxious questions. Still, childhood has been the largest chunk of our lives so far, and for a lot of us, the foundation for who we are today. This period of time is simultaneously irretrievable and yet very near; there exist moments when one can glimpse the children we used to be, when things like Winnie the Pooh, Toy Story, or our all-time favourite toys make their way into our life.

These transformations, the momentary back-and-forths, and the ways childhood experience is integrated in a body alongside the emerging adult identity constitute my focus here. This, then, is a study of people I grew up in constant contact with, and of parts of our childhood’s material culture that transcended their status as mere objects: for whatever reason, we separated them as special, and for a while they were an extension of our bodies, constantly attached to us. Like Andy in Toy Story 3, most of us are now away from home, scattered in different places, leaving our toys behind or taking them along. Our choices about what to do with them poignantly reflect our sense of identity and continuity between the past, the present, and the future. The toys, smelly, worn out and overused, serve as visual reminders encapsulating our process of becoming.


My study, based on my undergraduate dissertation, brings together explorations of the body, selfhood, and material culture; through these the themes of memory, attachment, continuity and becoming are examined in terms of the process of growing up.  My study of the continuing attachment to childhood toys in adulthood and their incorporation in the present endeavors to show how these categories are all inter-related, placing the individual body at the center of a network of relationships and stories that produce a self and a subjectivity.

Drawing from Van Wolputte I take selfhood to imply “a body-self that […] extends in space and time, in material culture, in animals, and in the bodies of others” (2004: 252). Thus, the body is treated as a place where stories, images, and memories reside (Belting 2011). As years of everyday conversations and shared experience with the girls –I played with their toys and they played with mine when we were small- made it difficult to relegate life to the level of academic discourse, I found Csordas’ viewpoint on embodiment particularly useful:

“Embodiment […]is situated on the level of lived experience and not on that of discourse; embodiment is about “understanding” or “making sense” in a prereflexive or even presymbolic, but not precultural, way (Csordas 1990, p.10).” (Van Wolputte 2004: 258).

Hence, I will be focusing on ordinary experience and preoccupations of everyday life; situations that may be paradoxical, funny, moving, ridiculous, familiar, or uncertain, general in that many of us experience them but particular in that we do so in diverse ways.  

Attachment to Soft Toys and the Creation of Bodies Invested with Life

“Like most little boys, he has had toy animals to play with, but though he loves them all, his best friend has been his Teddy Bear, called Winnie-the-Pooh, or Pooh, for short. The funny thing is that Pooh doesn’t like being called a Teddy Bear now […]. You see, what they both feel, and what I feel too, is that Pooh is really alive and does things, but a Teddy Bear is just a toy which sits about and does nothing”

A.A. Milne, The Christopher Robin Story Book (1966: v-vi)

It is probably impossible to count the instances in our childhoods in which we were exposed to some sort of story where magical objects, animals and toys talk. An obvious one of the 1990’s was Toy Story, and then there were old fairy tales, Disney films like Beauty and the Beast, where objects are companions that interact with the heroes and even are their best friends. It is not hard to imagine, then, how this belief in magic and animistic thought was something we were open to as children, taking care of our favourite toys as if they were real, saying good night to them and worrying about how they would feel if we neglected them. Since children are allowed to believe in magic, we were able to be more explicit about the importance of objects in everyday life, an apt example to Miller’s claim that “…material culture matters because objects create subjects much more than the other way around. It is the order of relationship to objects and between objects that creates people through socialization whom we then take to exemplify social categories” (2008: 287). Toys were magical because they represented a world of new possibilities, where we could create a person from our imagination, a friend that we could carry everywhere with us and on whom our shared experiences would become inscribed in the wear and tear of overuse. As Winnicott suggests,

“the thing about playing is always the precariousness of the interplay of personal psychic reality and the experience of control of actual objects. This is the precariousness of magic itself, magic that arises in intimacy, in a relationship that is found to be reliable” (2005: 64).

Such objects, due to their constant attachment to children’s bodies and the love we infuse them with, come to acquire a substance and become consanguineous to us; we remain attached to them and our parents cannot decide to throw them away because they are a part of us. They become synonymous to us and to home; my granddad, when my brother and I left home for university, placed the teddy-bears we each had in their house on his library with our names written on them, the toys serving as a presence and a reminder of an absence simultaneously.

However, apart from the toys being infused with some of our substance, they also seemed to have a life of their own; as Winnicott describes an infant’s transitional object,

Me in my grandparents’ house, playing with the toys we kept there. (Photo taken by someone in my family)

Me in my grandparents’ house, playing with the toys we kept there. (Photo taken by someone in my family)


Our toys now, labeled with our names and placed in my granddad's library. (Photo taken by me).

Our toys now, labeled with our names and placed in my granddad’s library. (Photo taken by me).

However, apart from the toys being infused with some of our substance, they also seemed to have a life of their own; as Winnicott describes an infant’s transitional object,

“the object is affectionately cuddled as well as excitedly loved and mutilated. […] It must survive instinctual loving, and also hating […]. Yet it must seem to the infant to give warmth, or to move, or to have texture, or to do something that seems to show it has vitality or reality of its own” (2005: 7).

Hence, that toys are important to most children is not a statement that needs further discussion; however, sometimes they are so loved and so firmly situated in a network of relationships and narratives of shared experience, that they survive adolescence and remain important in adulthood.


From the V&A Museum of Childhood. The caption reads: "Little Tommy Tittlemouse. This teddy bear was very well loved by his owner. After he gave him to the Museum, he sent birthday cards to Tommy every year until he died. Tommy’s birthday is 24 November.” (Photo taken by me).

From the V&A Museum of Childhood. The caption reads: “Little Tommy Tittlemouse. This teddy bear was very well loved by his owner. After he gave him to the Museum, he sent birthday cards to Tommy every year until he died. Tommy’s birthday is 24 November.” (Photo taken by me).



 Introducing the girls and the toys

Eva and Georgia are twins who have been my best friends since we were babies, and to them, toys are family.

Mema and Memos, matching dog and cat backpacks, were given to them as a present when they were five. Three years later the toys got married and had children. Mema took her name from the word “Beba” (meaning “baby girl”), a term of endearment for Eva when she was small. Naming Memos with the male equivalent of Mema was Eva’s idea, a result of their being a pair, one for each twin. Since Memos was given to Georgia and Mema to Eva, each is the respective mother of her toy, but they are very attached to both.

Rebecca, their other favourite toy, is a soft doll that my mum, who is Georgia’s godmother and an old friend to the girls’ parents, bought for Georgia when she was small. She is also part of the family as she is Georgia’s daughter, and the story is that she is now grown up and studying to become a doctor. Notably, Rebecca has her own teddy bear.


Memos, Mema and Rebecca. (Photo taken by me).

Memos, Mema and Rebecca. (Photo taken by me).

When I asked the girls –rhetorically- if they would ever give these toys away, Eva almost shouted “Never!” and they both outright rejected the idea. I asked if they are saving them for their children, to which Eva replied, seriously but with a hint of a smile showing she knew the situation was slightly comical, that she would not do that either because she would not entrust them to anyone, what if they ruin or lose them?

Fair enough, the girls are very careful in their handling of their toys nowadays; although in the past they slept with them now they put them aside because they are so tattered they might damage them. Mema, by far the most used and loved of all, has a ripped ear and a broken zip with a great story behind it. When, one day they were in kindergarten, the zip broke, they were so distraught in their crying that all the other children there started to cry with them. This aptly shows how clear Eva and Georgia make that these are not mere toys, but so important and loved that they should be treated as live beings. Even when they were small, that distinction was apparent: they never played with them as they – or we- played with Barbie dolls, but rather they were constantly there, like a part of the family that they would not lower to that level of playing like they did with other, generic toys. As they commented, now they actually play with them more than when they were children, but this form of play consists of creating and maintaining a network of relationships and family ties, getting everyone present to play along with them. This is seen in how family links transcend the limits of Eva and Georgia’s family, making me Mema’s godmother, a guy we know from a summer holiday Rebecca’s no-good boyfriend, and Mema’s dad a constant mystery but rumored to be Eva’s first (and ex) long-term boyfriend.

When, still with the idea of childhood nostalgia in the back of my head, I asked them the abstract, and supposed-to-lead-to-analysis question of what the toys mean to them, Eva just looked at me for a while and simply said: “We just love them very much, they are like our children”. That was the final point clarifying that these toys are not symbols or nostalgic memorabilia for an innocent and idealized past self, neither are they representative of an idea; it is the toys themselves they loved, and love, and will love as they were and will be growing up and experiencing relationships, break-ups, university, in parallel with Memos, Mema, and Rebecca.

For the past two years, the twins have been separated for more than a few days for the first time, Eva studying in North-Eastern Greece and Georgia at home in Athens. Initially Eva had taken Mema with her, but in the end they brought all of the toys to their family home in Athens so that they can be together as a family and because Memos was sad without Mema. One could expect that in separating the twins, the toys belonging to each would be separated too, but ultimately, the story about the relationships between them was too strong, and perhaps the girls did not want to increase their separation by expanding it to the toys. Anyway, Eva comes to Athens often, and Georgia and their older sister Anna visited her in the North some weeks ago and of course brought Mema along.


Mema when she was ill: a photograph that Georgia and the girls' older sister Anna sent to Eva while she was at university. (Photo taken by Anna).

Mema when she was ill: a photograph that Georgia and the girls’ older sister Anna sent to Eva while she was at university. (Photo taken by Anna).

What is notable is that their relationship to their toys has not changed. They remain equally important and played with, way past their conventional place in time; however, it is not that the girls perpetuate their sense of childhood selves through their holding on to their favourite toys, rather that the toys have become so essential that they are a stable point of continuity across time. Furthermore, as this is primarily a form of play that Eva, Georgia, and-to a lesser extent-Anna engage in, it is a practice of their own that enhances the strong bond of sisterhood between them.

Consequently, the girls and the toys develop alongside each other, a link constantly sustained in the narratives weaved by the girls in parallel to their own social relations and life events; the toys, when considered as live beings, are dynamic and familiar like friends that you have shared a lifetime with; as material culture they are objects of utmost value, bearing the visual marks of stories, adventures and mishaps that are safe from obsolescence because they are encapsulated in something tangible, soft, and smelling of home.

That should make it understandable why they are still so important and why the girls are indifferent that this is not what is expected of ‘mature adults’; if growing up involves learning how to love and care for someone else and if, as Miller says, “possessions often remain profound and usually the closer our relationships are with objects, the closer our relationships are with people” (2008: 1), then the girls, who love their toys even if they are old now, may have something to tell about building profound social relationships and also, about the fluidity of age categories, which can be shaken up by different performances, much like what Judith Butler (1990) suggests may happen with gender.

Conclusion: Playing, Cultural Experience and the Collective Imaginary

Play, an embodied state that is “always a creative experience, and […] a basic form of living” (Winnicott 2005: 67), does not necessarily involve toys or objects made for children; it may be found in any sort of “creative relation to the world” (Milner 1952 cited in Winnicott 2005: 52), practiced by adults and children alike. As a form of living and a state that, in its freedom and creativity, is thoroughly fulfilling, it is very important in the production of a self with passions and interests of one’s own pursued in play, positioned at the center of a network of relationships with objects and people. If “the body and experiences of embodiment are produced in the doings of people by social and cultural rituals that are personal and communal” (Waskul and Vannini 2006: 7), and there is a “collective imaginary” (Belting 2011: 56) of intersubjectivity connecting the girls and their toys with a shared stock of memories or images, the toys, as receptacles of all these memories still being created, are very important in defining the bond of the girls and everyone included in the network of relationships.

If  “the place where cultural experience is located is in the potential space between the individual and the environment (originally the object) […], the same can be said of playing. Cultural experience begins with creative living first manifested in playing” (Winnicott 2005: 135). Thus, the girls’ toys may have been one of the first elements used in building a network of relationships involving family and their friends, loved ones, even acquaintances who made an impression; in sustaining their role in adulthood, they become yet another thing that bolsters the bonds between them and what is important in their lives.

Finally, I wish to emphasize how the twins’ attachment to their childhood toys is not a case of nostalgia and passive clinging to the past. Rather, it is a dynamic process of creating relations and narratives that weave inextricable links between the past and the present, thus allowing for a growth that holds on to what they do not want to forget or let go of. The girls have managed to incorporate something of ‘the past’ into the present by keeping it alive and loving it, thus creating a complex “aesthetic” (Miller 2009:296); and this ability to maintain a close link with the past while living in the present is an enviable art.


Beauty and the Beast. Dir. Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. By Linda Woolverton, Paige O’Hara, and Robby Benson. Perf. Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson. Walt Disney Pictures, 1991.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Csordas, Thomas J. “Embodiment as a Paradigm for Anthropology.” Ethos 18.1 (1990): 5-47.

McLoone, Paul, and Feargal Sharkey. Teenage Kicks. By J.J. O’Neil. The Undertones. Castle Communications, 1993.

Miller, Daniel. The Comfort of Things. Cambridge: Polity, 2008.

Milne, A. A. The Christopher Robin Story Book. London: Methuen and, 1966.

Milner, Marion. “Aspects of Symbolism in Comprehension of the Not-Self.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis (1952): n. pag.

Toy Story 3. Dir. Lee Unkrich. Perf. Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack. WaltDisney, 2010.

Turner, Terence. “Bodies and Anti-bodies: Flesh and Fetish in Contemporary Social Theory.” Embodiment and Experience: The Existential Ground of Culture and Self. Ed. Thomas J. Csordas. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge U.P., 1994. 27-47.

Waskul, Dennis D., and Phillip Vannini. “Introduction: The Body in Symbolic Interaction.” Introduction. Body/embodiment: Symbolic Interaction and the Sociology of the Body. Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2006. 1-18.

Winnicott, D. W. Playing and Reality. London: Routledge, 2005.

Wolputte, Steven Van. “Hang on to Your Self: Of Bodies, Embodiment, and Selves.” Annual Review of Anthropology 33.1 (2004): 251-69.

The Album People – digital photography and social research

Elad Ben Elul, UCL Digital Anthropology and the Album People, Tel Aviv

(An earlier version of this article was published in Interactions.)

Applied anthropology is becoming increasingly visible and the rise of digital anthropology means cultural research is employed for the development and marketing of technology. However, applied anthropology can also be used as an ongoing research tool for service design as an organic part of the work process. This post examines this option by looking at an enterprise called “The Album People”.


The Album People is a London-based service specializing in digital archiving and the preservation of domestic memories. The service was designed as a direct result of a Masters thesis conducted in UCL’s Digital Anthropology department  about the future of the family photo album. The ethnography looked at digital archiving practices among Ghanaian families living abroad. My partner, Alicia Weekes, and I founded it in the hope of helping people build a bridge between their pre-digital and post-digital memories. Our main objectives are to encourage centralization of memories across different platforms, optimize searchability and browsing experience, and preserve materials in sustainable formats and storage outlets according to international digital archiving standards.


Although the Album People is essentially a commercial enterprise, our main aim here is to show how services can be designed following social research, and how social research can continue while the service is being provided. By this second stage I mean how we examine the social significance each collection has to its keepers and how it reflects their ideas about family memories. I will elaborate on these two stages to illustrate the significance of social research for user experience and design as an integral force throughout the design process.

01Table of pictures copy

Social Research Before Design

The role of behavioral psychology, anthropology, and social design in the development of technological products is becoming increasingly visible. Companies such as Microsoft, Intel, and Amazon hire anthropologists to understand the cultural foundations of technological use. As Genevieve Bell, director of Intel’s Interaction and Experience Research, has explained, you cannot invent new products before you understand how people use existing ones [1]. This philosophy guided my anthropological research about the future of the family photo album conducted at the Centre for Digital Anthropology, University College London. I was eager to deconstruct how we think of digital photos and storage in hope of identifying the needs and problems around them.

One of my main concerns with previous research about the topic was the extent to which white, middle-class Western families have been observed for the study of digital family photos. For example, studies by Microsoft’s research labs were conducted with English families (mostly based in Cambridge) about memories, home archiving, and photo frames [2]. This frequent choice has to do with the notion that this group has more access to technology, reflects target markets more accurately, and, perhaps above all, represents a neutral community that can provide universal insights about digital technologies. But these notions are far from true and in fact distract us from discovering more challenging insights. That is because we are all influenced by our local culture, norms, and ideals, which differ from place to place. It is often necessary to step out of our supposedly neutral culture and look at someone “else,” in hope of revealing some new truths that can challenge our design process. The group I chose to observe for this goal was Ghanaian families who live in the U.K.

Ghanaian families in the study used digital technology on a daily basis so they can keep in touch with relatives abroad. They also have a tight relationship with photography thanks to the role it played in the British colonial days, as well as during the founding of the Ghanaian nation. By examining the history of the photos from Ghanaian families in our study and how digital tools are incorporated into an existing culture of sharing and remembering, I discovered practices that I later translated into the Album People service.

For example, Ghanaian families were often frustrated with their mass of photos and their dispersal between various digital and non-digital platforms. Photos arranged in albums or in random batches, framed pictures, mobile phones, computers, memory cards, and online archives such as Facebook all create a scattered family library that is often unwelcome. Ghanaian families also share a sense of anxiety and uncertainty regarding the “safest” form of storage. While some families might reject digital storage as a dangerous terrain and opt instead for printing photos, others embrace it as a disengagement from material hazards. Clouds have further challenged these ideas, as they allow immaterial storage but expose photos to privacy- and ownership-related threats.

During fieldwork I also noticed that while photo management software (e.g., iPhoto) overcomes issues of browsing and searchability, such tools organize only avatars of the actual files. The real digital files are usually scattered around the computer (e.g., “My Pictures” folder), do not contain textual information, and are not properly archived. This mass of digital photos makes it challenging to navigate between the materials. It was clear to me that there is a need for archiving methods that address the media files themselves.

Learning about the universal through the specific of my fieldwork notes was integral to the design of the Album People. For example, I knew right away that home visits to the clients are necessary to make sure the materials do not leave the sight of their keepers and are fully digitized within the safety of their “natural” environment.

Another issue I had to tackle was the difficulty people had locating specific photos. Using metadata and tags on the actual files, just like digital archivists do in institutional repositories, means the photo is forever linked to its textual clues and captions. Moreover, these captions are searchable on any computer search bar, which makes it much easier to find actual files.

With respect to the actual storage of materials, the Album People uses a dual storage approach that includes both the organization of data in hard drives and curation in an online gallery. The use of fully digital formats in place of DVDs is pretty new in this industry, but fieldwork has showed me that DVDs are perceived as a hybrid digital and analog object that does not solve the problems raised. Furthermore, storing photos online encourages sharing and promotes the social experience around photos, when such an experience is desired. When families express more concern about privacy and safety, high-quality USB sticks stored in cherished boxes created a safe “time capsule” or “vault” feeling for the client.

Last but not least, I felt very strongly about the consulting elements of the service and how the home visits I conducted for my ethnography should continue as part of the package itself. When arriving at a client’s home we would have casual interviews to understand the best archiving methods for his or her specific collection. In this sense, the design of personal digital family photo albums required social research not only in the development stage but also as an ongoing value in our day-to-day customer-archivist interaction.

Social Research During the Service

Perhaps the more correct term would be social research methodologies and not social research, as my proposal does not call for some sort of info-gathering of customer experience but rather an optimization of the service through a better understanding of their perceptions. How do we organize our digital photos? What do we keep them for? How do environmental elements such as family, location, and lifestyle change our photo-storing needs? These questions cannot really be answered in full in pre-development research. Instead, we must aspire to constantly engage with those questions and use our interactions with living storytellers (in the form of clients) to further improve our understanding of digital family archives.

How do we organize our digital photos? What do we keep them for? How do environmental elements such as family, location, and lifestyle change our photo-storing needs?

Great aunt’s family genealogy. One of our clients, a career woman with a busy schedule but a strong sense of responsibility toward family memories, hired us to digitize a very old collection kept by her great aunt. As all of the aunt’s family members were dispersed in the U.K., they had no access to the photographs, and since the aunt was not getting any younger, they felt it was essential to preserve in digital formats not only the photographs, but also the stories and information they carry (which were stored only in the aunt’s mind). This challenge required more than mechanical digitization; it also called for in-depth research through interviews and conversation about the individuals in the photos, the dates and locations, and the genealogical structure of the family.

Using metadata (captions and keywords embedded in the files), we managed to bridge the immaterial aural information and the material photographs. The aunt’s mass of photos was organized in folders that reflected the strongest elements of self-definition in this specific family genealogy. By dividing the family branches into folders and assigning numbers to each folder, the digital library became a type of family tree that guides you through the chronological and genealogical story of the family all the way back to the 1870s. The collection was presented online in a gallery so that family members from across the country could access it. I always find it interesting that the aunt mentioned we have digitized only the photos of the dead and that she will soon invite us to do the same for the living.

Chapters of familial life. A very different case involved digitizing a collection belonging to a much younger and smaller family. Young Western families tend to have a weaker bond with their non-immediate relatives and define themselves mainly as a nuclear unit. This influences how their photos are organized, as division by branches is not relevant and there is a need to reflect the chapters and periods of their familial life. The project was booked as a Christmas surprise by the mother (who often ends up as the curator of pre-digital family memories). Before scanning the photos, we sat down with her and sorted the photos into batches. The batches reflected historic segments as she divided them; they consisted of “wedding photos,” “pre-children photos,” “post-children photos,” and “holidays.” Again it was the use of metadata and the digital folder structure that allowed us to design an archive that reflected its keepers. But the only way to know how to design these was through an engaging dialogue with the client. The structure of remembering was incredibly different in this case because it referred to a more immediate personal biography. A simple scanner would never have been enough, and the photos would have ended up messy and disorganized (making them even more likely to be lost than when they were scattered in envelopes and shoeboxes).

Pre- and post-immigration. Families who immigrated from the U.K. or to the U.K. are a very interesting case as well. It is easier for family members who lived in one place all their lives to archive their photos and videos by specific events or years. Families who have immigrated or who regularly move countries, however, tend to sort their photos placing less importance on chronological structure and more on geographical structure. We had a client who moved with his family from Singapore to Scotland, and the archive had to reflect this dramatic change. It was clear the archive (and its memories) were often perceived in two terms: “before we arrived in the U.K.” and “after we arrived in the U.K.” The collection allowed the family to navigate between these two significant life periods and made it easier to categorize photos. Families who live abroad also place greater importance on the cloud version of their archive, for it allows sharing and exhibiting with transnational relatives. This is how digital family albums break the boundaries of time and space and encourage a dialogue around memories among various family members.

These are just a few examples to illustrate how social research takes part in the design and development of the service, as well as during the actual interaction with clients. I believe it is essential that more sociologists and anthropologists become involved in the world of innovation, as it can dramatically influence how we think of things and people. A company can use social research methodologies either with the  help of academics or simply by including a set of values in their toolkit of interactions. Interviews, observation, analysis, and above all, sensitivity to whomever it is that you are serving, can dramatically improve the satisfaction of the customer and the knowledge gathered by the service provider.

In the design of family photo albums, which are such personal and unique collections of stories and histories, the role of attentive social research is key. Although the scanners, online galleries, and metadata software are all available to create a digital collection, these have no meaning without the information provided by the curators. They will supply the flesh and blood (dates, locations, names, relations) to the skeleton (folders, tags, hard drives); it was our role to connect them into a meaningful archive.

Of course, the world of digital photographs is constantly changing and requires many more solutions. It seems as if people are not sure today which memories to document using cameras and which are not worth capturing at all. Some of our customers expressed difficulty during the consultation stage because it was hard to categorize random photos into collective folders. Highly formalized documentation practices (weddings, births, graduations) are shifting into a more spontaneous and random approach. Mobile phone cameras took this even further and we now document ourselves in any situation, even while eating. How do we go about organizing such photos? Such questions should be asked while keeping a tight dialogue with users of various groups. This dialogue is important because domestic archives contain meanings that go beyond personal sentimental values. By counteracting institutionalized and governmental archives, domestic archives are vital to the preservation of identities and histories in the intimate, free  space we call home.


1. Bell, G.‘U are happy life’: Telling the future’s stories. Proc. of the 19th ACM International Conference of Multimedia. ACM Press, New York, 2011, 585–586.

2. Kirk, D.S. and Sellen, A. On human remains: Values and practice in the home archiving of cherished objects. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI) 17, 3 (July 2010), Article 10.


Elad Ben Elul ( is a digital anthropologist and the co-founder of the Album People, a London-based service that consults with families about the storage of their memories in digital formats. With a background in print and online journalism and a master’s in digital anthropology from UCL, he is a great believer in the application of ethnography and social research outside academia.




On High School Homecomings

 Matt Voigts, UCL Digital Anthropology Alum

The village youth elect their royalty, dance for the elders, and engage the nearby villages’ champions in combat. Gridiron combat, that is – high school football, American style, and the biggest game of the year is Homecoming (unless the team makes the state tournament).

Homecoming is a football game followed by a chaperoned dance, preceded by pep rallies, parade, and week of festivities. It is most common (if not exclusive to) the U.S and Canada, formed with the countries’ globally-atypical unity between schools and sport leagues. After attending my high school alma mater’s 2013 Homecoming rally, I decided to produce a primer, comparing it to the two other most prominent events of the American high school year: Commencement and the spring formal dance of Prom. In all three, a close-knit community of students use humor to personalize their turn at enacting rituals familiar through mass culture, older siblings, and the school system. Homecoming embraces absurdity the most blatantly, being rooted in the colorful iconography of high school sports.

Homecoming: Background

A formal history of Homecoming has not been written (if you know of one, please let me know!), making tracing the specific origins of traditions difficult and beyond the scope of a short blog post. Despite its ubiquity, Homecoming is infrequently discussed in academic literature, much like summer camp, the American childhood rite on which I wrote my MSc dissertation and a Material World post. For contemporary examples of what it has grown into – however – Youtube remains a bottomless font of video documentation).

Broadly speaking, Homecoming grew up with 20th century American education and sport culture. The origins of a large, school-sponsored party around a football game date to late 1800s and early 1900s, with the increasing popularity of inter-mural rivalry games at both colleges and high schools. The University of Missouri makes a strong if disputable claim to being the first place at which the general format (“a spirit rally, a parade and more than 9,000 fans packed into Rollins Field“) became a regular annual event following its introduction at a 1911 game against the University of Kansas. The neighboring states and their universities had been rivals dating back to the 1850s pre-Civil War Missouri Compromise that saw Missouri enter the Union as a slave state, and subsequent Bleeding Kansas conflict and land grabs designed to tilt Kansas toward either Slave or Free for its impending national incorporation. It was natural the rivalry would translate into sporting events, arguably its primary manifestation today. The Homecoming format itself grew as school districts, colleges and their sporting events expanded throughout the 20th century.

Reduced to its broad outline, the Homecoming of today sounds like an anthropological archetype, awash in iconographic displays, suffused with a strong current of absurdity. Students elect a Homecoming “king” and “queen” (criteria: popularity) whose primary duties will be to share a dance at the school-sponsored party after the evening game, and return the following year to pass their baton and scepter to the new court. The main event day is preceded by a “Spirit Week,” during which students are encouraged to come to otherwise-normal classes dressed for theme days, such as “Pick a Decade Day,” “Pajama Day,” and “School Spirit Day.” And, of course, the schools’ football teams are marked by totemic nicknames: cowboys, lynx, cadets, and broncos, to name a few from my school’s conference.

 Homecoming 2000 - opp-gender day

 For universities, Homecoming is a time when alumni are invited to return – to see old friends, celebrate the campus experience, watch the game, participate in a variety of events, and remember to make a donation when the alumni office calls. In high school, local pride may be at stake; in college, sports play an important role in fundraising and public relations. This is part of a broad program of “cultivating lifelong institutional loyalty,” which Magolda (2003) described as “eclips[ing] all other ceremonial aims” at Commencement. Publically-funded high schools have few incentives – financial or otherwise – to encourage loyalty from graduates. Most attendees to the parade, coronation, and game are parents and classmates of the players; recent graduates; and/or other local residents who are likely to have complicated feelings about the place and their own role in it.

Pep rally crowd

For high school students, Homecoming is an autumn counterpart to the springtime Prom, the centerpiece of which is a chaperoned formal dance, preceded by the presentation of the students to the community during the Grand March (the promenade from which it gets its name). “The prom symbolizes one of the few spaces authorized by adults in which kids practice being adults, though in class-scripted ways,” writes Best (p.151), describing the dance as a space in which students (usually in their last two years of secondary school) enact an idealized version of middle-class responsibility, respectability, maturity, and success, while still under adults’ expectations to adhere to a sanitized vision of childhood and refrain from other mature behaviors: “Proms were historically tied to a schooling project used to govern the uncontrollable (youth). By enlisting youth to participate in middle-class rituals like the prom, schools were able to advance a program that reigned in students’ emerging and increasingly public sexualities,” writes Best (p.10).

As Best describes, Prom’s institutionalized nature – both as a pop cultural touchstone and school-sponsored event – engenders both adherence and resistance, as the young adults involved subvert the sophistication of the event such as by informalizing their formal dress, sneaking off with their significant others for private time, boozing (illegal until age 21 in America), and otherwise enacting their own visions of unencumbered maturity. For a personal favorite depiction, listen to The Hold Steady’s “Massive Nights,” which gleefully-yet-world-wearily indulges the adult-ungoverned aspects of a high school dance.

For students, the myth and visuals of Prom are romantic: everyone looking their best and dancing with their dates.  As Best describes with Prom – participation, adherence, and resistance is likely to be coded by students’ comfort with the institutional goals of the events. In my experience, many adults see uninvolved students’ lack of participation as a symptom more than cause of social marginality. Prom involves romance and play at being middle-class high society for a night.  Homecoming aligns itself with extra-curricular participation. It’s a common stereotype that the Homecoming king is on the football team, the queen a cheerleader. At my high school, participating in extra-curriculars is not a requirement for attending the student dance, though involvement in the coronation pep rally emphasizes autumn activities: football (of course), volleyball, dance team, cross-country running, and pep band – the latter two of which I participated in as a student.

For examples, see this Youtube video from another school: court candidates identify themselves based on their extra-curricular involvement, and argue for their worthiness by demonstrating a sense of humor. This video dispsenses with the extra-curriculars, focusing on their joke-telling ability.

Carnivalesque elements suffuse Homecoming; the dress-up days and royalty election directly recall European carnival traditions dating back to the Middle Ages. Yet while carnival suggests a temporarily topsy-turvy world, despite the added humor, little about the functionality of school actually changes during Homecoming week: students attend class in costume but otherwise continue about their work; the football game itself proceeds much like any other football game, except with a bit larger crowd and a more elaborate halftime; and the school dance could be one of a handful that happens throughout the year.

Carnival, Cologne 2013

Carnival, Cologne 2013

Students’ actual investment in the festivities (and adults’ expectations thereabout), however humorously they take them to be, may vary. “We [teachers] pay Homecoming lip service, but I doubt many teachers care much, two-thirds of students don’t care much either, and identical people get elected every single year,” suggested a friend of mine who teaches in a small Kansas town. Her assessment seems consistent with my own high school memories: despite all the supposed hoopla around the event, and even though I would consider my school a supportive place, as a slow cross-country runner with little interest in sports who was bad at finding dates, my (and my friends’) own investment felt somewhat tempered.

What strikes me about the image I somehow got in my head of Homecoming before I attended it (likely through popular media) is its reverence, especially toward the election. While humor may be a requirement for the position of King or Queen, the election itself is treated rather un-ironically. The news stories I most readily found from fall 2013 applaud the progressiveness of electing a transgender Queen , a same-sex couple , a King with autism, a King and Queen with Down’s syndrome, a King who gave his crown to a friend with a neurological disorder . Attempts to find jokes about Homecoming returned this trickster narrative about “a free spirit with few friends,[who] was named to the homecoming court as a joke by her classmates,” who proceeded to turn ironic support into an anti-bullying campaign via a Facebook campaign. All these displays of inclusiveness emphasize the deliberate performativity and symbolic power of the Homecoming election. They also demonstrate the extent to which the popular image of Homecoming emphasize the formal, peer validation aspects that will honor only a small number of participants.

Bypassed in the formal image are the ample lighter elements that come in the enactment process: the skits, parades, the temporal stakes in electing royalty, the inside jokes displayed for the slightly-larger audience of parents and community – and the ways in which these bridge the tension that comes with peers taking their turns to enact the fun-but-storied ritual. If we take the typical outline– the election, the game, the dance – at face value, the humor seems to arise almost outside the ritual, to challenge its piety.

The event

My north-central Iowa hometown has a population of around 3,000, and its high school’s four grade levels total between 250-300 students any given year. Most who attend (with the notable exceptions of some Latino migrants and foreign exchange students) have grown up together since elementary school, and play sports with a handful of similarly-sized schools within an hour’s radial drive. I write as a one-time participant, current observer, with the assumption that the basics I describe are common to many American high schools.

ParadeThe students arrive via parade. The King and the Queen: five candidates of each, chosen from the Seniors (4th and final year of high school) by the student body, arrive via classic car. Other high school athletes, cheerleaders, and musicians, arrive via hayracks, semi-trucks, and fire engines – all staples of regional parades, large, visually-impressive vehicles than can easily carry an entire team or civic club.


Candidates with toilet paper

They travel past houses with trees strewn with toilet paper. While norms may differ and be debated, locally, “t.p.’ing’” is (more often than not) considered a visually expressive act of harmless vandalism, often performed on public property and the homes of well-liked students or teachers. Not-so-well liked folks get egged, and the eggers get more aggressive visits from law enforcement.


cheoreographed dance

The parade leads to the pep rally, several choreographed dances, and the coronation: all held on the asphalt track that encircles the field. The dance team dances; the dance team girls dance with the football boys; the teachers dance; and the seniors’ parents dance. Some parents have apparently chosen to participate for the amusement of their kids, some to their mortification. Again, YouTube offers some examples (Gangnam Style, Backstreet’s Back and Call Me Maybe?). At my old school, the teachers dance to Randy Newman’s “Short People Got No Reason to Live” – a reference to the opposing team’s rather atypically non-aggressive mascot, The Midget. One by one, the teachers attack a doll-midget in effigy – tackling it, pile-driving it, throwing it about. Then the cheerleaders get the crowd worked up with some routines, encouraging the crowd to stomp and yell to well-known beats. During my years there, a local performer acted as the school’s “oldest cheerleader” at the event well into her 90s.

attacking the midget

The backdrop to this is the uniformed football team, varsity and junior varsity, who remain just outside the track, inside the field. Some seem comfortable standing before the crowd, others bored. The only participants who remain determinedly detached are the coaches, who look on with benign if stony-faced authority. The overall tone is amusing, lighthearted, a well-liked teacher announcing events and names via the loudspeaker, joking with the people who’ve offered themselves up for display.



The pep rally culminates in a parody of both democracy and monarchy: the election of royalty. The candidates stand on the field in pairs, are described with half-joking biographies (almost all seniors are quite excited to be first in line for lunch their final year). The former queen crowns the current king with a fairy wand-like scepter; the outgoing king gives the queen a tiara – one of the few practical duties attached to the honor. These tokens are of symbolic value, but plastic and of little monetary value, likely less so than the bouquets presented with them. Usually, the outgoing royalty pace back and forth a few times for suspense, or offer the crown to a member of the crowd, as the emcee cracks a few more jokes.


After these conscripted and volunteered performed displays, and after the game, the kids retire to ‘their’ dance under the watchful eye of chaperones.


Homecoming has a sense of importance granted by tradition: the iconic outline of election and competition, from still photos in Yearbooks and the pop-culture of yesteryear that remain ever-present in the American school experience. The cultural prominence tends to emphasize the more formal elements (the game and coronation), lending the humor of the pep rally and Spirit Week an air of subverting Homecoming’s place in culture.

Best never notes the ways in which  the schools themselves rein in Prom’s pomp, though from experience I can say that my hometown’s Grand March emcee often has a similar (if more subdued) joking tone in announcing the couples. Magolda (2003) says of Commencement, the greatest disconnect between practice and articulated institutional goals is an undercurrent of perfunctory weariness: “Mechanically and technically, the performers excelled; yet only a few performers conveyed the feeling that they believed in the performance. Yet he also writes of the hallowed event: “Although intellectualism is an espoused institutional core value, the commencement performance vacillated between a comedy club routine and a collegiate pep rally.” These tensions, I would argue, are not from ritual enacted imperfectly, but rather institution, students, and audience articulating a semi-conscious acknowledgement of the differences among depictions, expectations, and practice, of communal familiarity concretizing an oft-recited cultural script.


Best, A., 2002. Prom night: youth, schools, and popular culture. Routledge: New York. Accessed through Taylor and Francis e-library edition.

Magolda, P.M, 2003. Saying good-bye: an anthropological examination of a commencement ritual. Journal of College Student Development. 44 (6), pp. 779-96. HTML version accessed.

Configuring Light: Staging the Social Project[/caption]

By Dr. Don Slater (Sociology, London School of Economics and Political Science) Dr. Joanne Entwistle (CMCI, King’s College London) Mona Sloane (Sociology, London School of Economics and Political Science)


Project Website:

Light has been largely invisible in social sciences. Although there are established research agendas on vision and visual culture, light itself – as material culture, as infrastructure, as a physical feature of social landscapes – has virtually no literature. Conversely, the largely technical literatures on light in architecture, design and energy studies make sociological assumptions that do not connect to the social science approaches that could help make sense of light as lived practices and understandings (eg, material culture studies, science and technology studies, consumption studies). Configuring Light/Staging the Social aims to forge an integral dialogue between social sciences, design, architecture and urban planning focused on one of the most fundamental features of social life. As the programme title indicates, we are concerned with light as a material thing which is shaped or configured into specific social forms, and which enters into the ways in which social life and interaction is staged and enacted in specific social worlds.

Our aim is to produce both knowledges and methodologies for better researching the ways in which light is configured and the roles it plays in structuring social life. In pursuing this aim, our perspective is ethnographically comprehensive: we want to map all the significant forms of knowledge, practice and governance and all the actors (consumers, designers, planners) that enter into the processes of configuring light and staging social life. We anticipate that the practical and user significance of this research programme could be both large and – at the outset – unpredictable.

Our own expectations are twofold: • Light consumption has a greater impact on energy use than any other single social practice; changes in light use stemming from new knowledges and methodologies can make a huge environmental and economic contribution. • Light, as a fundamental feature of social life and of design, provides grounds for deeper methodological integration between social sciences and design disciplines, with possibilities of dramatic changes of practice on both sides of this divide.

Configuring Light/Staging the Social is a research agenda rather than a single research project. The aim is to develop, over the course of the next year, a limited number of pilot projects into a coherent programme. We have identified four focuses for research development:

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The Minstrel – a documentary film

Luana Kaderabek, UCL Digital Anthropology

This documentary has been created as part of the Digital Anthropology (MSc) program at UCL. The filmmaking module, led by the visual anthropologists Vikram Jayanti and Richard Curling, challenges anthropologists to incorporate digital media as a research tool in their ethnographies.

The Minstrel has been nominated one of the three best films in the autumn/winter class in 2012. It is about Ozan Figani’s life, a hairdresser originally from Turkey, Anatolia, who owns a traditional Salon in East London. Little by little he starts to reveal his true first job (music and poem writing).

He is an Alevi. In Turkey, Alevism (considered by many to be a religion similar to Buddhism or a simple way of living) is a popular belief embedded in many political conflicts. It has been oppressed and forbidden for many years in Turkey and only nowadays it is a bit more acceptable. That’s why the culture is based in oral practices such as traditional sayings and poems in the form of songs and through the teachings of the chosen Minstrels (called Ozans). So, in order to keep Alevism alive, Ozan Figani follows the journey as a minstrel: carrying the messages from the past and transmitting it for the future generations.

The Unbearable Lightness of Things


By Marta Vilar Rosales

Centre for Research in Anthropology, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, UNL, Portugal

The project “Atlantic Crossings: materiality, contemporary movements and policies of belonging” is a quest to follow the objects in particular, and “things” in general. From surveys in Lisbon, Oporto, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to ethnographies of transnational families spanning these contexts, the project will unpack the lived experiences of Brazilians and Portuguese circulating between their respective home countries. The goal is to understand the difference materiality makes in dynamics of international mobility. Instead of asking “what’s in a name”, we ask “what about what’s in a suitcase?” And, for that matter, what’s in the packages sent from home? What will be bought with remittances money? What will be acquired and fashioned to decorate one’s new home? In short, the project explores how “things” can frame, organize and produce social reality in the specific context of international mobility.

The routes, temporalities and patterns underlying the traffic and appropriation of objects compose the lens from which to take a fresh look at the lives of the people in question. The moment in time is of the essence, as clearly reflected by the coverage of the flows of people and capital connecting both countries in their respective national media. The current economic crisis, and subsequent soaring unemployment rates in Portugal, hit the most qualified population the country has ever had. In turn, Brazil attracts attention because it has been emerging as an economic player that is looking to enhance the labour market through recruitment of specialized workers. Furthermore, it will be holding main sports events in the next few years (namely, the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2015), which promise work opportunities. The story, however, is not that simple. Massive protests concerning, in part, these very sports’ events have recently startled policy makers and have been ushered the world to pay attention. Moving across the Atlantic to try one’s chances in a rather hermetic labour market is also not the most affordable option either. Some Portuguese are indeed managing to get their qualifications recognized. They are the ones feeding the narratives of successful emigration both through interpersonal social networks and through “Portuguese across the World” -like shows in mainstream media.

Yet, in truth, little is known about Portuguese abroad since the country became an immigration context in the late 70s – researchers focused on the transformations taking place within borders. It is still unclear how the current moment features in the long-standing, inter-connected histories linking the two Portuguese-speaking countries. How the post-colonial relationship re-articulated in the 21st century? More concretely: what consumption habits change when Portuguese engineers, architects and managers have to cope with living in extremely expensive cities? What do unemployed construction and domestic services’ workers who reach their limit bring home when s/he wants to impress friends and family (and keep some of Europe with him/her) but there is little s/he can afford? What business strategies do entrepreneurial Brazilian beauticians take in order to endure the crisis and keep alluring customers to strive for a Brazilian-like body? How do the material surroundings of Portuguese men who find themselves in the small hometowns of their Brazilian wives, whom they met in Portugal, change their view of Brazil – and of their own life-projects? How do the Portuguese wives who travel on the work visas of their husbands reinvent their daily routines, and the rules of conduct they teach their children, in cities that are often talked about as very dangerous in Portugal? We’re counting on “things” to tell the stories.

Indigenous sign language on the web

Via Fred Myers, NYU

Linguists and indigenous communities in the Northern Territory have launched an online dictionary for indigenous sign languages.

The Site,, contains several hundred video clips of signs for public view.

You can listen to a radio program about the initiative here: Indigenous sign language on the web – Bush Telegraph – ABC Radio National (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).

It’s (im)material: Packaging, Social Media and Iconic Brands in the New Russia

Graham H. Roberts, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense,



The aim of this contribution is to contribute to the growing literature on material culture and nostalgia in Russia and Eastern Europe.  In particular, I should like to take up the central themes of two articles published recently on Material World by Makarenko and Borgerson (2009) and Glass (2012). I wish to build on these studies in two ways, however.  First, I intend to look at alcohol, at how certain post-Soviet Russian alcohol brands use packaging to appeal to consumers’ patriotism.  Second, I wish to draw parallels between the material culture of packaging on the one hand, and the immaterial culture of social media networks on the other.

It could be argued, of course, that packaging is not ‘material culture’ in the usual sense of the word.  In some sense it is a hybrid phenomenon, neither immaterial (like the brand), nor material (like the product: see Manning 2010). Torn between the ‘semiotic’ world of brand and the ‘functional’ world of the product (Manning, private comment), it is the crucial ‘commercial interface’ between brand and consumer (Heilbrunn and Barré 2012, 10).

On the contrary, we would maintain that packaging is indeed part of material culture in the sense described by Woodward: ‘In its popular scholarly usage, the term “material culture” is generally taken to refer to any material object (e.g. shoes, cup, pen) or network of material objects (e.g. house, car, shopping mall) that people perceive, touch, use, handle, carry out social activities within, use or contemplate’ (2007: 14).  Packages are indeed objects, since they are handled, and – especially in the cases which I shall be looking at – they are aesthetic objects designed to be contemplated (see for example Borgerson and Schroeder 2008).

Packaging in Russia has almost always been ideologically and politically loaded.  In her excellent book on Russian retailing from 1880 to 1930, Marjorie Hilton (2012) mentions the fact that in the late Imperial era, many Russian companies displayed the Romanov eagle on their labels. Later, in the 1920s, Rodchenko and Mayakovsky designed sweet wrappers around such themes as industrialisation or the Red Army. The politicisation of chocolate wrappers continued throughout the Soviet era with, for example, the ‘New Moscow’ range of the 1960s (examples of Soviet and post-Soviet packaging design can be found here:  The product category where the Great Russian Past is most prominently displayed is not chocolate, however, but vodka (for a more detailed discussion of this phenomenon, see Roberts 2013).  This is perhaps to be expected.  First, for Russians, vodka is not just ‘a pervasive mediator and sign of relations of sociability of all kinds’, as in neighbouring Georgia (Manning 2012, 183); it is the national drink par excellence.  Second, Kravets (2012, 363) makes the important observation that ‘the official ban on mass advertising [of vodka in today’s Russia] makes other techniques of branding, such as naming, labelling, and packaging, a primary mode of promotion for the industry.’ Third, vodka is an alcoholic beverage which tends to be relatively uniform in colour, smell and taste. To quote Hine (1995, 4), ‘it is no accident that vodka, the most characterless of spirits, has the highest profile packages’.  With over six hundred different vodkas on the Russian market, eye-catching Russian-oriented design can help a brand both establish legitimacy and differentiate itself from the competition. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that so many Russian vodka brands exploit iconographic Russian images in an attempt to sell themselves.

Capture d’écran 2013-04-29 à 23.37.14

It should be pointed out that politically charged references were generally rare on vodka labels produced during the Soviet period.  In the post-Soviet era, however, there are countless examples of ideologically loaded vodka labels, bottles and boxes.  When it comes to vodka packaging design in Russia today, there are few examples more impressive than ‘Legenda Kremlya’ (‘Legend of the Kremlin’).  This vodka is marketed as a premium brand, or rather as an ‘élite’ vodka, as the label itself tells us. Its long-necked bottle comes in a hollow black and gold box designed to resemble an imposing medieval manuscript (  When one opens the ‘manuscript’, the first thing one sees is the portrait of ‘Monk Isidore’ above the date ‘1430’, written in an ancient calligraphic style. As one leafs further through the pages of the ‘manuscript’, one learns all about how Isidore stumbled across the recipe for the first Russian vodka one night working alone in his cell in the monastery that once stood on the site of the modern-day Kremlin in Moscow – the ‘legend’ to which the vodka’s name refers. There is a reproduction of an ancient map of the Kremlin, as well as a story about the bottle itself, purportedly designed by an ‘unknown craftsman’ in the late eighteenth century. Last but not least, there is a brief account of how the makers of ‘Legend of the Kremlin’ vodka ‘miraculously’ stumbled across Isidore’s centuries-old recipe, and were thus able to revive this great tradition. In sum, the story behind this brand (con)fuses the origin of vodka and the centre of Russian political power; mythologizing the brand and sacralizing the State go hand in hand in Russia.

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Modes of Hitchhiking in Russia

 Francisco Martínez (EHI, Tallinn University)

- Palm down or thumb up: the fare depends on the gesture you do by the road.

- In Russia, even Lenin seems to hitchhike, standing with a hand in his pocket and the other pointing up towards the future.

Foto 1- Terje Toomistu haciendo auto-stop en Rusia

Fig 1. Terje, the walk between rides. Hitchhiking in Russia.

Hitchhiking is a way of travelling by charity, a sort of begging tourism. This practice of mobility is gaining popularity in Russia, paralleled to the disappearance of traditional ways of travelling cheap in the country.

There are indeed multiple modes of hitchhiking in Russia and not all of them legal. We can of course find the traditional one, idealised by the ‘Beat Generation’ and the ‘Hippies’. I mean the one of rising up the thumb and moving through hundreds of kilometres, crossing cities with impossible names and listening to truck cabin philosophy.

This is the mode of hitchhiking that the writer Igor Saveliev describes in his novel ‘Off the Beaten Track: Stories from Russian Hitchhikers’, in which he affirms that a new golden era of hitchhiking is happening… in Russia.

Once I was hitching myself to recall the good old days. I had to take off my wedding ring and tell everyone I was 22 and not 28. If you are picked up by a long-distance truck driver and it turns out that you’re the same age, it’s a bit embarrassing: It looks as if he works to feed his family, spends his fuel on you and you’re, well, a slacker”, writes Saveliev.

Huge distances, hostile weather, unpopulated areas, difficult language – this sounds serious enough to dissuade any adventure in Russia, or – maybe not. According to Patrick Laviolette, this could indeed be an incentive for hitchhiking explorations, since it intensifies the ‘intimate-sensing’ of the activity.

Moreover, this anthropologists of Tallinn University holds that technologies are crucially conditioning the practice of hitchhiking yet not killing it. In his view, multiple technologies determine the way people prepare for the adventure. And even during the trip in itself, for instance, by facilitating communication with distant people or acceding to information. Nonetheless, hitchhiking (as any adventure) is about finding oneself and breaking with quotidian patterns. Hence the ubiquity of the technological world might equally be one of the reasons to escape and disconnect from routines.

Hitchhiking is an activity that brings about moments of loneliness as well as clear ruptures of the solitude it engenders. Likewise, to adventure entails a starting point and certain behaviours. Similarly, the fact of depending on others feeds humility and respect. So hitchhiking is always a unique experience, in which we encounter different people, moods, smells, sounds, accents and landscapes along the road.

As confirmed by Terje Toomistu, curator of the exhibition ‘Soviet Hippies, hitchhiking was already an important part of the ideology of the Soviet Hippies in the 70s. They even had a supporting ’systema’ parallel to the official one and in which the drivers could use tickets to get extra gas after picking up hitchhikers.

Currently, there are 10 clubs of hitchhiking in Russia, the oldest being founded in 1978. Terje has hitchhiked several times in Russia, visiting the Caucasus, Urals, and North-west region:

Every moment, when I raised the thumb, it was an open point which could settle in an infinite number of ways. Each stopping car, which I climbed in, took over the lead of my destiny, opening doors and with them new realms. The good old Russia should be a paradise for each hitchhiker. It also seemed to me that Russians like to share their life, emphasizing what they value, what they like and dislike, making them often sounding like philosophers, but from real life, not from some drowsy libraries”, shares Terje. 

She was travelling with two friends – all girls. “So that made it a bit more complicated, as not so many cars can fit in three travellers. But we surely felt more secure than hitching alone or in a pair. Well, at another time when we were hitchhiking in Komi towards Moscow, we were also three of us until it came hopeless. Then we had to divide and I was alone. I got a ride with a truck driver and we had amazing conversations all along the night towards Moscow. I was also sleeping at the back towards the morning. Although he gained my trust, I was still cautious enough to have a pepper spray in between my underwear. Of course, nothing bad happened, he was very friendly and nice to me”, remembers Terje.

In her view, “hitchhiking in West-Europe can be more complicated, as hitching on highways in not allowed and you have to run between petrol stations. However, in Eastern Europe you rarely have huge highways, so you can stop the cars wherever, which makes it more flexible and perhaps enjoyable”. She concludes: “Probably people still remember the old times when hitchhiking was favoured with a sense of collective environmental responsibility and support for vagabondage, hence drivers keep picking up travellers by the road”.

Nonetheless, neither hippies nor the beat generation invented the thumb-up exploration. This practice was already common in Britain and the United States before World War II. There is even a Hollywood film of 1934 in which Clark Gable appears hitchhiking with a gorgeous woman:

Further on, the practice of hitchhiking in Russia is much more varied than the rise of the thumb and fantastic long travels across the steppe. For instance, urban hitchhiking has been a crucial way of commuting within post-socialist cities. Palm down or thumb up: the fare depends on the gesture you do by the road. Foto 2 - Reuters_Vostok Photo

Fig 2: Reuters / Vostok Photo.

It is of course possible to move for free within Russian cities. I mean to practice the classic hitchhiking based on the charity of the drivers. For instance, I rose up my thumb in St. Petersburg with my friend Nastia, who loves unexpected encounters, risk and the experience of different speeds. I tried to tell her that I had money to pay a taxi, but she rather preferred to explore the taste and elasticity of time.

The two other alternatives of (paid) hitchhiking in Russia are the ‘bombily’ (illegal taxis) and the spontaneous drivers who give you a drive if it’s on their way and need some money. Still in Russia there is no proper collective system to share a car, like for instance the German Mitfahrgelegenheit. There are in Moscow over 40.000 unlicensed taxis, which give you a drive after seeing your standing by the road with the palm down. These taxis are of course cheaper than the 9.000 official ones. Nevertheless, since September 2011 there is a municipal campaign to erase the ‘bombily’ from the cityscape. Police controls and fines of 150 euro are more and more frequent in the Russian capital. For instance, between March and September 2012, 680 drivers got fined and 416 cars were confiscated.

It was in 1925 when Muscovites saw a taxi for the first time. Already in 1932, the fleet of Renaults and FIATs was substituted by the locally produced GAZ-A, a Soviet car co-produced with FORD. The described (paid) urban hitchhiking was the norm indeed when I lived in Moscow. Everyday I jumped into a car to cross the huge megalopolis, accumulating incidents and anecdotes. Once I went out of the Propaganda, a club in the city centre of Moscow. It was around 3:00 am and I had no more than 120 rubles in my pocket (3 euro). To make things worse, it was raining and I got a bit tipsy. I stood by the road for half an hour, trying unsuccessfully to convince someone to give me a drive to Prospekt Vernadskogo (south-east) for that price.

Finally, a clapped-out Lada stopped and the driver, a middle age man with golden teeth and dirty clothes, accepted to drive me home. Noteworthy, he was not talkative and opened his mouth only twice to repeat: you got the money with you, isn’t it? We haven’t even come out of the boulevard ring of Moscow when the car ran out of fuel. The driver, unruffled, told me that he had no money so in order to drive me home I had to pay in advance. Not only that, we had also to pull the car for half an hour to the next petrol station.

Popsovy music and Russian chanson dominate in the bombily. The drivers are usually immigrants who strive to survive as better as they can. Ksenia, a friend from St.Petersburg, describes as an adventure her trips from Kupchino to the city centre. If the choffeur says ‘there’s no need to wear the seatbelt, I’m a good driver’, he’s just trying to hide that the seatbelts do not work. Ksenia also told me how she entered with six friends (four seated, two laying) in an official car with two agents. That was the first surprise, the second one came when the agents asked for money once they arrived.

So hitchhiking is indeed part of the Soviet/post-Soviet road-scape. As writer Sergei Dovlatov says, in Russia, even Lenin seems to hitchhike, standing with a hand in his pocket and the other pointing up towards the future.

NB This article is a revised version of the one recently published in Spanish in the newspaper Russia Hoy: