Public/Private Tensions in Cuba: “We Are Looking for Happiness, Not Success” 

Last July I had the opportunity to travel to Cuba with the support of the Princeton Program in Latin American Studies. My month-long trip was loaded with impressions, such as the kindness of Cubans, the not-so-great food (heavily loaded on the eggs side for vegetarians), the relative emptiness of the highways despite Cubans’ innovative use of anything that drives, the famous 50’s American old-timers you see everywhere and the visibility of the Communist regime, not in terms of military presence but more so in portraits of the Castro’s in stores, bars and food banks, revolutionary graffiti, and the political Billboard signs sprinkled besides main throughways.


One thing that stood out for me were the stores with their rather uneven assortment. In contrast to American and European supermarkets, Cuban stores often only have one brand of anything (i.e. Cuban diet coke, toilet paper, water – yet a large assortment of Cuban rum!), if they have the specific product you are looking for at all.


Since 2011 the government has allowed Cubans more leniency (see also here) to open up small, private companies such as restaurants, stores or other forms of self-employment. I found that these recent policy changes had interesting consequences for commercial spaces, and in particular the public /  private divide and logics we associate with these spaces.

An example is a store I visited in Trinidad, see the photo below. Prices of the goods in this store were cited in the CUC currency, the currency used for luxury goods and tourists. This picture illustrates the improvised nature of the store and the open connection with the living room in the back. The entrance of the store was through the open front door of the house, and the store lacked a display window.


Throughout my travels in Cuba, I saw many examples of these ‘private spaces turned public.’ Another example is a restaurant where the bathroom for customers was simultaneously the bathroom still privately used by the owners: it also had a bath and a shower. In a third example at a restaurant in Vinales, grandma was sitting in a chair in the back of the room, and guests of the restaurants could look beyond her right into the kitchen, where an ordinary ‘home’ kitchen block was used for restaurant cooking. In this restaurant another open doorway led straight into a bedroom of the house, where you could see two carefully made full-sized beds with typical Cuban kitschy pink and poisonous green cover-sheets.

What do these spaces indicate? It this simply improvisation born from need?

I would hypothesize that these spaces are material expressions of a larger ambivalence that characterizes many Cubans’ stance towards capitalist entrepreneurship and the self-interested motives associated with it. My notion of the binary between ‘public’ and ‘private’ spaces is a European import: while the public is associated with the logic of the free market, the private is the space of domesticity and intimacy. They correspond to two logics of actions (i.e. monetary transaction versus domestic ‘acts of love’) that are seen as essentially different and need to be kept separate. In The Purchase of Intimacy (2005), Viviana Zelizer called this the “hostile world” thesis. Do we observe the same juxtaposition of two ‘hostile worlds’ and separation practices in Cuba? How are separation practices mitigated or reframed as a result of the communist reality of Cuba?

In “Salsa Suarez,” a privately owned restaurant in Varadero, I came across the following English restaurant motto that was announced proudly on little menu stands put on every table:


“We are looking for happiness, not success.”  

This restaurant was quite upscale, and featured international menu items, such as seafood risotto and burritos. The target group seemed largely families of better-off Cubans and mostly European tourists, who stayed in the ‘mid-range’ hotels and recently opened casa particulares scattered around the area. This motto seems strangely out of place in such a newly capitalist place: a private restaurant in one of the most economically booming, tourist places of Cuba. Rather than trying to separate intimacy from the economic realm, it seems to try to convey a ‘domestic’ logic on their business and distance the restaurant from economic rationality.

I am aware that this type of import of domestic logics into the market is not unique to Cuba.  American companies frequently try to portray themselves as ‘family’ companies, and the hotel industry tries to position clients as guests. Nevertheless, I still think it is interesting in light of Cuba’s complex relation to capitalism.

Rather than disguised marketing strategies, these mixing of logics may indicate people’s ambivalence or political anxiety to openly embrace the ‘capitalist impulse,’ and the self-interested, destructive market motives associated with such an impulse. Hence, in this particular context, it may not only be a way of managing the tension between ‘hostile worlds,’ but more so the tension between ‘capitalist’ and ‘communist’ logics and orders of worth. In this context, happiness and success are not mutually implicated.


Visualizing the Sociological Field

By Sharon Cornelissen and Joel Mittleman

All sociologists amongst us have probably faced this question at some point of their life, whether it is at a holiday dinner amongst family, on a first date with a non-academic (?!) or when striking up a casual conversation with a stranger: “So.. what is Sociology? What do sociologists actually study?” 

While I have occasionally stumbled my way through these questions unprepared, with incomprehensible inventions such as ‘the psychology of society’ or ‘the anthropology of the United States,’ Joel Mittleman, a classmate of mine – anticipating the same question in his SOC101 discussion session – came up with a more creative answer.

He word clouded the entire American Sociological Association 2014 Conference Program.

Joel, ASA word cloud

I think it is quite interesting and informative. For instance, the concepts of gender and race feature more prominently in the program than ‘class’ (if you check out Google NFrequency here you can see the steady decline in the use of ‘class’ since the early 1970s up to 2008 – it remains open whether we would observe a temporary increase again in recent years since 2008 due to the great Recession).  Even more interesting, of course, would be to see the changes over time; What would a word cloud of the ASA program in the 1950s have looked like? Or in the 1970s?

Ethnography: Some fresh methodological insights from the ASA

Any ethnographer would want to go to the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting just for its fieldwork potential. Sam’s blogpost already highlighted some quirky practices, such as the different afternoon and evening dress-codes and the substitution of eye- for badge-contact as a way to initiate conversation. To this I would add the game of seeing and being seen in the Hilton Lounge, when people wear or do not wear their badge – time of the day, distance from the Hilton, institutional pride? – and the remarkable practice of stargazing at many panels. 


While I am sure that some fascinating studies on ASA’s interactional dynamics can be done, there was more for ethnographers to get excited about. In this blogpost I summarize two methodological discussions that I picked up at the ASA.

(1) Theory-data connection
What is the role of theory in ethnography?

During the closing panel at the Junior Theorist Symposium on Friday, Stefan Bargheer provocatively argued that perhaps we should stop reading theory and instead try to get as broadly inspired as possible, reading anything from neuroscience to People’s Magazine. 

He dismissed synthesizing theoretical accounts (theory based on theory) and argued that these often simply reproduced received biases of previous research. Instead he preferred what he called theory by use: monographs that may at first be critiqued as a-theoretical, but that become classics as people apply its insights in often surprising new sites or using different methods. 

Stefan gave Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) as an example. He held that this book was initially received as ethnologically interesting, but mostly a-theoretical. While I do not fully agree with this characterization of Goffman’s early reception (see book reviews by Stone 1957 and Naegele 1956), it is true that Goffman dared to radically depart from the received theoretical wisdoms of the time. In another review the anthropologist Lloyd Fallers, who studied stratification patterns in African societies, for instance argued that:

“[T]he usefulness of the dramaturgical image would, in our view, be greatly enhanced by a more systematic effort to relate it to the concepts which we commonly use in the more macroscopic analysis of society and culture.” (Fallers 1962: 191)

I am very glad that Goffman did not decide to become a structural-functionalist, and based himself on his own data, gut and creativity instead.

(2) The ‘dual’ positionality of the ethnographer
How does the position of the ethnographer, in both her field site and in the academic field, influence knowledge production?

I also enjoyed the discussion on the dual positionality of the ethnographer. Many readers are perhaps familiar with the idea of positionality, which means that any fieldworker should reflect on how her personal characteristics, such as gender, race, class and life experience, influence her relations to subjects and what she glances from her fieldwork.

However, in his discussion in a Monday afternoon panel, Andrew Deener emphasized how ethnographers are always stranding two fields: the world under study and the world of academia. Hence, considering the position-taking of the ethnographer in these two social worlds, we could speak about ethnographers’ dual positionality

How are the claims that ethnographers make in their work shaped by their current or anticipated position in the scientific field? How do the gender, race, nationality etc. of the ethnographer impact the production and (anticipated) reception of ethnographic fieldwork?

This discussion was prompted by a paper – see abstract here –  on the phenomenon of rogue ethnographers: mostly male ethnographers who study violent subcultures from up close and who may professionally benefit from the masculine ‘heroic’ status that is associated with these practices. Loic Wacquant’s boxing career and Sudhir Venkatesh “Gang Leader for a Day” especially spring to mind. The status associated with these practices in their field sites, may actually translate to a somewhat heroic ‘rogue sociologist’ status in the academic field. 


The authors Hoang, Long and Ankoor contrasted these rogue sociologists of masculine subcultures against the example of mostly female ethnographers of sex workers. They argued that these female ethnographers often personally felt the need to distance themselves from sex work – and put a limit on participant-observation – to prevent to be seen as sexualized objects in the academic field, and be taken less seriously. 

I thought this idea of the translatability of status (or perhaps in other cases: the need to balance competing status claims)  and the consequential call to take into account our dual positionality was very interesting – and one that goes back full circle to the interactional dynamics of the ASA’s annual meeting. The academic field is not insular to the status competitions and cultural valuations we like to study in other places: as we always strand ‘two worlds’ as ethnographers, we should reflect on how our position in the academic field influences our choices in the field, the writing up of fieldwork and the reception of our work. 


Brain on a Stick? The Personal and Political in Academia

By Sharon Cornelissen

Now the pressing deadlines of the semester are over, it is time to reflect and make up the balance. Aside from being an ideal time for personal reflection, it is also a good moment look back at the public debates about higher education this year. These debates, which mostly took place online, centered on two topics that particularly caught my attention: the question about the disappearance of the public intellectual (with the related issue of the public relevance of social science – particularly urgent after the federal decision to cut 22% of NSF funding devoted to social science research), and the issue of the pervading stigma connected to mental health in higher education. While these debates took place next to each other, to me they point at an enduring tension in academia – the ivory tower complex with its ideal of the ‘objective scientist.’

brain on a stick

To what extent should we wish to keep viewing academia as insular from real world intrusions and concerns?
What is the relation between the pursuit of objectivity in science and subjective concerns (both private and public)? 

These questions hark back to Weber’s infamous twin essays Science as a Vocation and Politics as a Vocation, and Bourdieu’s somewhat cynical description of the academic field, which describes academics caught up in internal battles for power. I wondered what I could contribute to this debate.

Fieldworkers have perhaps most acutely confronted questions on the relation between objectivity and the personal and public. Within the ethnographic literature, it has long been recognized that fieldwork is highly personal, and that it is not just impossible but perhaps even undesirable to draw the boundaries between academic questions and personal involvement. The objective and subjective realm are not heterogeneous realms, essentially different, with subjective concerns constantly threatening to invade objectivity (i.e. Durkheim 2008 [1912]).

Rather, ethnography teaches us that great scientific work can often be highly personal at the same time. No ethnography is conceived of and written based on a perspective from nowhere. For example, while coincidence and contingency seem to play a large role in the selection of field sites, ethnographers often also indicate that they felt drawn to a field site by personal affinities. Elijah Anderson, for instance, said that his first ethnography, A Place on the Corner, allowed him to hang out and form adult relationships with men not unlike those whom his father associated with. His scientific project to understand the black men who hang out at Jelly’s Corner, a corner tavern and liquor store, was highly personal and allowed him reflect on his own background.

Rather than barriers to scientific knowledge, ethnographers can mobilize their personal characteristics and political outlook to better understand their subjects. Hence, rather than purifying science, ethnographies rely on reflexivity both on part of the fieldworker, and the readers who are presented with an honest account of the data collection, personal characteristics of the researcher, and the findings. Hence, ethnographic knowledge production relies on, rather than expurgates, the personal and political.

Screen Shot 2014-05-26 at 7.52.17 PM

Based on reading a draft of this blog, Winston Chou (a fellow graduate student), constructed the typology above. All colored boxes are part of the academic field proper, exemplified in the purple box ideal of the ‘objective scientist.’ The activist  (who expresses subjective concerns in the public realm) is seen as outside the field. While the public intellectual threatens to contaminate the ideal of the objective scientist by bringing in public elements, the issue of mental health should be placed in the box of the private scholar, who contaminates science by bringing in subjective, personal elements.

Consequently, the decline of the public intellectual and the mental health stigma in academia both flow from the ideal of a purified academic field, haunted by the image of the objective scientist. Both are inspired by incomplete attention to the total persons that we all are – rich in both the public and private concerns that inspired us to turn to science in the first place.


How to make the most out of your visit days

By Sharon Cornelissen and Samantha Jaroszewski

This past fall and winter must have been a nerve-racking grad school application season for many of you. As first year PhD students, we still vividly remember those anxious days and weeks awaiting graduate school decision emails, compulsively checking gradcafe. Congrats to all of you who have been accepted to one or more programs! Now that decisions have been sent out, it is your turn to decide.

One year out from making our own visits and decisions, we have reflected on the experience and compiled some advice for prospective graduate students to make the most of their visiting days.

thinking woman deciding

General advice

  • Narrow down your options. If you have more than one acceptance, remember that the visit days can be really draining personally, and also are an investment in you by the university. Often they pay for your trip, a current student hosts you and professors take time to get to know you. If you’ve already mentally ruled out an option, consider declining the offer to visit. Perhaps it will also free up a spot for a waitlisted student to go on the official visit.
  • Stay for a couple of days rather than hopping from campus to campus. This gives you an opportunity to ‘feel out’ not just the departmental culture, but also go explore the town or city and housing situation. After all, you are not just choosing a school but also the place where you are going to live for the next 5 or more years. Why not take that extra day to explore the town beyond the university?

  • Get to know your fellow admitted students. Not only may these people be in your future cohort, but also if they end up at other schools they may be good contacts to have. Wouldn’t it be awesome to have a place to stay in Chicago or Seattle for a future conference?

  • Keep notes about your visit day experiences. Jot down first impressions, pros and cons, etc. It may be more clear in your mind now than in a month when you have to make your final decision.

  • Be nice to everyone. You never know when you will meet them again, so handle all interactions — including declining offers of admission — respectfully. It may be prudent to email the potential advisor yourself before declining the offer formally, thanking him or her for the time and hospitality.

Questions to ask of current graduate students:
Pay particular attention to the other graduate students — admitted and current students. Your colleagues are the ones that you’ll learn the most from and who will support you in the most difficult moments – trust us, those moments will come. How collegial are they? Is there a more friendly or more competitive atmosphere?

  • Are you happy here? Do you feel students around you are happy?

  • What made you decide to come to this school rather than other schools? How do you feel your expectations have held up?

  • What dissertation projects are current graduate students working on? (Are their projects inspiring and interesting to you?)

  • What are the weaknesses of this department? What would you like to see done differently?

  • How are faculty-student interactions? What type of advising structure is common in the department? Examples of advising structures include hands-off, workshop model with larger cohorts or apprenticeship one-to-one relationship with a main advisor.

  • How much time does it take to fulfill the teaching requirements? Are there other service requirements? How long on average does it take for people to graduate?

  • Do students get offices? Often, visiting days are a time when everyone coalesces in the office, so this can give a misleading impression. Ask about how much time people spend in the office on the norm — are people around?

  • What standard of living does your stipend afford? Can you afford an apartment, studio, close to school, do you need roommates? How is the housing situation? Do you need to take out loans? Is there 6th or 7th year funding available? Do you get reimbursed for conference travel?

  • What is the social life like in this town and/ or with fellow graduate students?

Questions to ask of faculty you want to work with
Often schools schedule individual meetings for you with professors. Prepare ahead of time. What are you going to ask them? An informal sample among our cohort yielded unequivocal conclusions: most meetings are going to be awkward. Knowing what to ask will not only give you better information, but also allows you to evade some of the endemic awkwardness of academia…

  • What projects are you working on? Where do you see your research agenda going in the next few years?

  • How many students are you working with? What are some examples of the topics of dissertations that you are currently supervising?

  • Do you work on projects together with your students, for instance co-authored papers?

  • How would you characterize your advising style? How often do you meet with your students?

  • What kinds of jobs have graduates from this department in the last couple of years been able to secure? What kinds of jobs have your students been offered in recent years?

Final advice: Stop asking everyone for advice. What school fits you well – your interests, ambitions, finances, happiness, family life? How do you want to live your life for the next five or more years? Balancing all these factors is very personal and no one knows as much about your situation as you do. Don’t worry too much about making the “right choice.” There may be many places where you could be productive and happy.

Dumpster diving and the tragedy of the commons

As I was completing a draft of a paper on dumpster divers in 2012, Emmanuel Guerisoli, a friend at the New School urged me that my case really was about the tragedy of the commons. While at the time I didn’t think too much about it, recently while reading Garrett Hardin his comment was pressed back to me.

The tragedy of the commons is a theory of collective human behavior that poses that without state regulation or privatization, people will maximize their short-term self interests and will inevitably overexploit commonly shared resources. An example is the risk of overfishing our oceans or the problem of collectively acting to tackle climate change. Garrett Hardin concluded: “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to us all” (1968: 1244)

How is the tragedy of the commons applicable to dumpster diving? 

Dumpster divers are people who collect and eat food from retail trash as a lifestyle choice, rather than being driven by necessity. Some retail establishment donate food that is about to expire – such as packaged freshly made salads and sandwiches – to charity organizations like City Harvest. The bulk of expired or about to expired food, ranging from day old bagels to vegetarian sushi, from bags full of fair trade chocolate bars to Dunkin’ donuts, however, ends up in the trash. In the United States an estimated 40% of all food goes to waste at some point of the production and consumption cycle.

In New York City, where I did fieldwork on dumpster divers in 2012-2013, retail trash is put in trash bags on the sidewalk six nights a week. As trash bags are put in public space, trash temporarily becomes a common good, not officially subject to police restrictions. The trash landscape in New York City can be seen as a common available for anyone to exploit.

Inline afbeelding 1

While some dumpster divers are secretive about their best spots, they don’t really have to worry about the issue of over-diving. The commons of dumpster divers in New York City get replenished 6 days a week, with stores seemingly endlessly throwing out wasted food.

Also, not everyone is as eager to stick both hands into unknown trash bags, especially not in public. Most people find the idea of eating food from the trash disgusting and the idea of doing so voluntarily rather crazy. Once at an alumni event in New York, after I told a middle-aged Dutch expat about my research, he gravely asked me how widespread mental illness was among dumpster divers.

The “tragedy of the commons” in the case of dumpster divers, rather, seems to be expressed in a shared commitment to responsibly managing the commons. For instance, I was dumpster diving alone at the Trader Joe’s on Union Square in Manhattan on a Wednesday night in September 2012:

As I am looking into another trash bin, moving white trash bags around to look one layer beneath the trash bags on top, I see an Asian, perhaps Japanese looking woman in her late thirties, bend over to close a trash bag full with packaged boxes of breaded, roasted chicken. She must be around 1.60 m and is wearing a cotton dark blue cap, her shoulder-long hair in a tiny pony tail. She is not carrying a handbag or other bag and is dressed in a grey hoodie with the name of a bar on it. I approach her and she introduces herself to me as Rachel, telling me somewhat later that she is a jewelry maker and sells her jewelry online. 

She tells me that she is closing the bag in front because otherwise the Trader Joe’s may get a fine. When I ask her whether she works for the Trader Joe’s she says hat she used to but not anymore. I tell her that I left the bag open intentionally, hoping that other people may find it and take some of the breaded chicken. She answers: “The people that come here know where to find it” (Field notes, September 19. 2012)

She is probably right in pointing out my naive idea that random New Yorkers would casually “stop by and take some chicken” upon seeing an open trash bag on the street. More interesting is that she takes the stand of Trader Joe’s and enacts the norm of closing bags and not leaving behind a mess: even going as far as cleaning up after people who neglect to do so. This norm was enacted and expressed by all the dumpster divers I followed – and evidenced by how unknown others ‘left behind’ trash they had just dived at, leaving behind legible signs such as an occasional lost glove or loosely retied knots.

Why did they do so? What can we draw from this short example? I think it is quite interesting that without formal regulations, with vague group boundaries and a weakly developed sense of ‘groupness,’ most dumpster divers in New York shared a normative commitment to the responsible self-management of the commons. Rather than “bringing ruin,” as Garrett Hardin’s model might have predicted, they work together with many anonymous others to maintain ‘their’ commons.

“Getting intimate” online

By Sharon Cornelissen

Most of our urban public interactions with strangers are not particularly intimate, except perhaps when being pressed way-too-intimately against anonymous bodies in the subway during rush hours. Even then we try to maximize personal space such as through the unspoken rule of maintaining distance when picking seats on transit. We also like to play with our phones, which helps us to avoid catching the eyes of others. This seems to have replaced the role that newspapers once played.


Online we relate to strangers quite differently. Consider the popular blog Humans of New York, which has over 2 million followers on Facebook alone. The blog is a collection of snapshots of urban strangers, accompanied by a short personal story or wisdom shared by the individual portrayed. Below is an example of a picture posted on January 9, 2014:


“What was the saddest moment of your life?”

“When my mother died.”

“What’s your fondest memory of your mother?”

“When I was 13 years old, I had an accident and was in a body cast for 6 months. I couldn’t even sit up. She would come in my room everyday, turn up the radio, and sing in my ear.”

Two days later, the post had already received over 65,000 likes on Facebook and more than 800 comments. Reading through 100 comments, 16 out of 100 commenters said the post made them cry, 19 people addressed the unnamed person in the picture directly (addressing him as ‘dude,’ ‘honey,’ ‘sir’ or ‘my friend’) and 38 mentioned their own mother and shared a fond memory. One user left the following comment:

The worst moment of my life, was also when my beloved mom passed away, just a few short months ago… I’m glad you have strong, wonderful memories of your mother… it’s a sad club, the “No Mom” club, but I truly believe that we are a testament to our mother’s strength and love and I know I will live well in her memory. XOXO to you, sir!

How are our online interactions with strangers different from offline interactions? Why do these commenters seem to identify so readily with this stranger? What is the nature and depth of this form of online intimacy, and on what basis is it established?

While these questions merit more attention, one of the interesting features of HoNY is the eye-contact between viewers and subject. The prolonged eye-contact with the unnamed stranger represents a contrast to everyday urban interactions in which a person’s gaze is usually averted. The connection is established for at most a fleeting moment. In the essay Sociology of the senses: Visual interaction Simmel analyzed the unique significance of eye contact in social interaction. He argued that it establishes a temporary union between humans and represents perfect reciprocity:

By the glance which reveals the other, one discloses himself. By the same act in which the observer seeks to know the observed, he surrenders himself to be understood by the observer. The eye cannot take unless at the same time it gives (Simmel 1921: 358)

HoNY plays with this experience, the sense of mutual disclosure and openness we associate with it: see also viewer’s reactions to Marina Abramovi’s artwork. HoNY enables viewers to see and meet the eyes of strangers, without being seen seeing. The pictures offer viewers a glimpse into urban strangers’ eyes and minds. The frozen-in-time prolonged glance we can sustain with the strangers of HoNY creates a sense of intimacy and exposure: exactly the sense of exposure we seek to avoid or minimize in everyday interactions with strangers in public settings.

So what explains the seeming contradiction between our ease of ‘getting intimate’ online and our everyday avoidance of intimate interactions with strangers offline? The mediated form of eye contact that HoNY facilitates gives us a hunch. In contrast to Simmel’s description of eye contact as perfect reciprocity, the intimacy of HoNY is largely one-way traffic. HoNY offers viewers ready-to-consume intimate moments with anonymous New Yorkers. While viewers leave behind strikingly moving and personal comments, which hints at the intimacy HoNY creates for some, this online way of relating remains transient and anonymous. One could say HoNY facilitates the intimacy of the onlooker and enables a type of online voyeurism into the eyes and minds of strangers.