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How power relations in the world work

How power relations in the world work

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/ Simone Golob

Kai Heidemann inspired by Eric Wolf

Anthropology was an extra course for Kai Heidemann, a social scientist at the University College Maastricht, when he was studying journalism and communication as an undergraduate. But after reading Eric Wolf’s Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century (1969), he decided to make the switch and commit to anthropology.

Eric Wolf (1923–1999) tells the stories of revolutions in Algeria, Cuba, Russia and elsewhere. “They’re all stories of populations that resisted an imperial power. I found it fascinating how ill-equipped farmers managed to break the chains of the power structure. At the time I was very interested in Latin America, so the chapters on Mexico and Cuba really spoke to me. And since I’m a French American and my mother was born in Algeria, I had a personal interest in the story of Algeria.”

The book opened Heidemann’s eyes to power dynamics. “When you can see the power relationships in the world, you become a bit of a sceptic. But you also develop a critical eye, which encourages you to read more deeply on current affairs. You start to view certain developments differently. Something like the free trade deal between the United States and Europe may seem like a good idea, but who’s gaining power from that? What will shift in the current dynamics?”

The questions that Wolf’s work raised all those years ago still influence Heidemann’s teaching today. “Power is a central theme in my courses. Power systems on a large scale can be very abstract; you have to find ways to make them concrete, as Wolf did.”

Wolf’s books are not on the mandatory reading list of Heidemann’s students, however. “He’s from the era of structuralism, which emphasised the macro level: rules, laws and codes determine what people do, and we can’t escape that system. Post-structuralists take this a step further and ask: where do these systems come from? They can only exist if people keep participating in them – why do they do so? If Wolf were alive today I’d ask him what he’d say about these new insights.”

This is not to say he never points a student towards Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century, or Wolf’s most famous book, Europe and the People Without History. “Those are classics. Power dynamics are a constant feature of our world. The voices and faces on the surface may change, but the stories of domination and resistance remain constant. If you want to know why recent movements like Occupy Wall Street or the Orange Revolution in Ukraine succeed or fail, it’s a good idea to study the great revolutions in history.”

This is a series in which researchers talk about the person who inspired them most

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