Disciplined empathy as an important tool in highly political times

21 March 2022

For over a decade, Franziska Fay conducted research on the Zanzibar Archipelago. There she worked with child protection organizations, children in primary and Koranic schools, was a guest lecturer at Zanzibar University, and advised international aid organizations. After completing degrees in Frankfurt and London, she was appointed Junior Professor of Political Anthropology at the Department of Anthropology and African Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in 2021.

Junior Professor Franziska Fay is convinced that the field of anthropology could benefit from more movement. "We do meet a wide range of different characters in our field," she emphasizes. "But we have yet to reach the level of diversity that is necessary to understand the lifeworlds we investigate through a variety of lenses. We need more discussions in our discipline that are led by people with different experiences and backgrounds. In Germany, anthropology is still very 'white', meaning it is dominated by people who belong to privileged groups in society, including myself, of course." In her research work, Fay constantly tries to counter this imbalance by, among other things, encouraging the involvement of other working languages – most recently in the context of an international workshop on "Tafsiri" (translation), which she and two colleagues organized primarily in Swahili.

Fay joined JGU's Department of Anthropology and African Studies (ifeas) in April 2021. "That was a real stroke of luck. During your postdoc phase, you usually have little influence on where you end up. There is a high expectation of flexibility while searching for a job that fits your own area of research." What Fay didn't expect was to find herself right next door to her hometown. "I was born in Frankfurt am Main and grew up in Offenbach." In 2011, she graduated from Goethe University Frankfurt with a Magister degree in Education, Cultural Anthropology, and African Linguistics with a major in Swahili.

East Africa, Offenbach, London

"Shortly before I graduated from high school, my mother took me to Tanzania where she was working as an architect at the time. This was my first visit to a Swahili-speaking place. Finding myself in a completely new context and in a place where I could barely communicate became a formative experience for me." Back in Germany, Fay decided to study Swahili, the official language of Tanzania and the most widely spoken language in East Africa.

"Offenbach is the city with the highest proportion of people with a migration background in Germany. I grew up with this special sense of a hyper-diverse community, with an appreciation for differences, and the need to think with and unite different life situations." Fay sees many parallels between the environment in which she grew up and now returned to and the aspirations that are at the heart of anthropology today.

After graduating from Goethe University Frankfurt and working in the children's rights sector with Save the Children in Berlin and with GIZ (German Society for International Cooperation) in Malawi, Fay joined the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London in 2012. Once again, she found herself in a very lively – albeit decidedly larger – multicultural metropolis. "I really like such cosmopolitan cities. Everything is less set in stone here, people are more open-minded, and assumed categories flow into one other. I miss this here very often." In 2017, she received a summa cum laude doctorate from the SOAS Department of Anthropology and Sociology.

By that time, Fay had identified a research area that would occupy her for about a decade. Central to this field were international child protection organizations' efforts to improve the situation of children in schools – which often had unexpected side effects. "The children's rights organization Save the Children had launched a program to establish a national child protection system in collaboration with the local government. One of the aims of the program was to better protect children from physical and psychological violence in the school environment." In Zanzibar, corporal punishment is common in schools and caning remains a legal method of disciplining students. Working together with the authorities, Save the Children wanted to change that.

Child protection in Zanzibar, Swahili in Oman

"As an anthropologist, my research was not primarily concerned with assessing whether corporal punishment is good or bad per se, or whether it should be allowed or prohibited. Anthropological fieldwork mainly consists of documenting, which allows us to observe, describe, and reflect on human behavior in detail and to identify points of friction." In Zanzibar, Fay worked mostly with local child protection activists and with students themselves who were intended to benefit from the child protection program. "Over a period of 18 months, my research activities at the schools consisted of creating a space where children could draw, take photographs, and write poems to express their own experiences within the context of the child protection program."

Fay wanted to know how the program of the children's rights organization was translated and implemented on the ground and, above all, what the children themselves thought of it. "Essentially, Save the Children's plan was to ban the use of the cane in schools and replace them with forms of 'positive discipline'. What often happened, however, was that if the students did something wrong, they were asked to pay small amounts of money. Many of the children reported that this was a bigger challenge for them than enduring a couple of strikes of a cane." This interpretation of the program – which brought about new complications for children and their families in an environment that is affected by poverty such as Zanzibar – had not been intended by Save the Children, but was only revealed through Fay's research, especially with young people.

It is not necessarily a new phenomenon that projects and approaches designed to achieve positive change face conflict with the realities on the ground. "I have been working closely with senior authorities at Save the Children since the very start of my research, sharing my insights with them, and advising them on the translations and analyses of local programs. It is essential to adapt such programs to the lived realities in a given context. Child protection is an emotionally charged issue. It can be difficult to avoid adopting a specific position from the outset. But this is what anthropological research is all about: You have to abandon the arrogance and conviction of knowing how things work and why people act and live as they do. You have to approach it with a 'beginner's mind'."

Last year, Fay launched her book "Disputing Discipline: Child Protection, Punishment and Piety in Zanzibar Schools" (Rutgers University Press 2021) at Goethe University Frankfurt. The book launch was hosted by the Normative Orders Research Center, where she worked until her appointment to JGU. During her time there, she also developed a second research field, which led her further up the East African coast to Oman, in the southeast of the Arabian Peninsula. "I am interested in the Swahili-speaking diaspora in Oman. Due to the centuries-old relationship between the Swahili Coast and the Arabian Peninsula, many young Omanis are still growing up speaking both Swahili and Arabic. At the same time, many people from the East African region, especially from the coast, come to Oman for work, often following family ties. How does this diaspora – if one can even call it that – see itself across the Western Indian Ocean? Who feels they belong to it and how, and to what extent have these feelings of belonging and their practices changed over generations?"

The potential of anthropology

Another focus of Fay's research is concerned with African feminisms. She will be offering a course exploring this topic in the 2022 summer semester at JGU. "We will focus on key concepts and questions in the works of African feminist activists. Tanzania, my core research region, is an exciting example in this regard. It is currently the only African country with a female head of state and is thus positioning itself in new ways in the global feminist discourse."

The last two years have been unusual for the anthropologist because of the limited travel opportunities. The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated many things. "Like several of my colleagues, the enforced break due to the pandemic has led me to reassess our field, which we have been unable to visit for a long time now, and to find other access points to not lose important relationships and connections on the ground. I am now hoping to be able to travel to Oman again soon." Fay is also currently working with colleagues at JGU to set up an interdisciplinary research group on Indian Ocean Studies.

Finally, Fay emphasizes: " Rather than in anthropology as a field, it is in ethnography – our method and our genre – that I see the greater relevance for our present and future. My PhD supervisor Christopher (Kit) Davis has described this beautifully as "disciplined empathy" that operates as a "type of political process" at "the most basic level, the level of everyday life". In our highly political times, we need such a disciplined empathy more than ever before in order to deal with questions of social injustice, racism, or the exclusion of people by dominant power structures. Anthropologists often have particularly relevant tools for this and thus also the opportunity, perhaps even the responsibility, to participate in socio-political processes."