For my PhD dissertation I undertook an ethnographic study of a group of white European and North American women who were living in Gilgit, northern Pakistan, in 1999 and 2000, most as international development workers. The project focused on the efforts of these transnational migrants to construct comfortable lives and identities in this socially unfamiliar Pakistani town. In particular, I examined how they construct communities, nurture homes and families, create a sense of self, imagine that self in relation to the indigenous people among whom they live, and build careers and personal relationships in Gilgit. The study yields insights into the challenges and accomplishments these development workers experience while temporarily living and working abroad in a Muslim community. It also analyses the political consequences of their everyday actions, and thus challenges people from the global North to confront the ways in which even their ostensibly benevolent practices reinforce unequal power relations at both the local and global scale. Despite the increased frequency and important ramifications of white women’s global migration to postcolonial locales, the topic has been largely neglected in feminist, sociological, anthropological, postcolonial, and globalisation literatures, as well as by international development institutions.
The theoretical purpose of the research was twofold. First, I wanted to understand how Northern women negotiate their subjectivities (their sense of who they are and how they enact their social positioning) in this transcultural and postcolonial setting through particular discourses that organise their self-understandings and everyday socio-spatial practices. Second, I was interested in how they perpetuate, legitimate, resist, and transform relations of domination as they materially exercise discourses in their daily lives. By investigating these two questions, I contribute to an ethnographically grounded understanding of contemporary transcultural power relations in South Asia, especially as they play out between local Muslims and metropolitan non-Muslims. Moreover, I trace the legacy of many of these relations from the colonial period into the present, and provide ideas about how they can be changed to realise a more just social reality.
Publications related to this research
In Press. Gender, Power and Transcultural Relations. ACME: An international E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 10(3)
2008. Development Workers, Transcultural Interactions and Imperial Relations in Northern Pakistan. In Diana Brydon and William Coleman (eds.), Renegotiating Community: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Global Contexts (p. 216-233). Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
2008. Developing Transnational Relations and Subjectivities: The Politics of Virtue and Empowerment in Gilgit, Northern Pakistan. Resources for Feminist Research 32(3/4): 115-141.
2007. Gendering Globalisation: Imperial Domesticity and Identity in Northern Pakistan. Institute on Globalisation and the Human Condition Working Paper Series. http://globalization.mcmaster.ca/wps.htm.
2007. Gender, Identity and Imperialism: Women Development Workers in Pakistan. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
2006. Bazaar Stories of Gender, Sexuality and Imperial Space in Gilgit, Northern Pakistan. ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 5(2): 230-257.
2006. Dealing with Danger: Spatial and Mechanical Manipulations in Gilgit, Pakistan. Gender, Technology and Development, 10: 191-210.
2005. What to Wear, What to Wear?: Western Women and Imperialism in Gilgit, Pakistan. Qualitative Sociology 28(4): 349-367.
I have attempted to translate the “comparative praxis and vision of transnational knowledge production” that Chandra Mohanty (in the preface to Gender, Identity and Imperialism) identifies with my work into publications suitable for lay audiences who are inculcated in contemporary processes of imperialism. I have focussed particularly on reaching Northern development workers who are preparing to live abroad. Perhaps by reading my analyses of the ways in which women development workers in Gilgit make lives for themselves abroad, as well as the political consequences of those actions and decisions, they may undertake transcultural engagements in a more reflexive, equitable manner. With these goals in mind, I published two pieces that I hope will be used by educators to engender ‘critical literacy’ and reflexive global citizenship among groups such as volunteer development workers.
Publications related to Critical Literacy
2012. ‘I’m Here to Help’: Development Workers, the Politics of Benevolence and Critical Literacy. In Vanessa Andreotti and Lynn De souza (eds.), Postcolonial Readings of Global Citizenship Education. London: Routledge, pp. 124-139.
2008. Shifting the Focus of Development: Turning ‘Helping’ into Self-Reflexive Learning. Critical Literacy: Theories and Practices 2(1): 16-26.
Cultures of Cosmopolitanism
While I was a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Globalisation and the Human Condition, McMaster University, I began a project that examines local manifestations of globalised identities and their effects on practices of everyday life and possibilities for autonomy. More specifically, it investigates the ways in which the globalised identities of professional development workers from Canada, which are constituted in Pakistan during lengthy work terms, become manifest in those subjects’ lives after they return home to constitute a culture of cosmopolitanism. Ethnographic data detail how the reconstruction of identity as a global subject over time can reshape both daily life and the globalising process in which these individuals are participating. The project also focuses on the relationship between globalised identities and autonomy, first by outlining how development workers use their global experiences, identities, and knowledge to make their own lives more fulfilling and efficacious in Canada, and second, by demonstrating that transcultural experiences can simultaneously initiate practices of human solidarity and advocacy on behalf of Pakistanis and perpetuate oppressive imperial visions in ambivalent ways.
2011. Canadian Development Workers, Transcultural Encounters and Cultures of Cosmopolitanism. International Sociology. November 18. DOI: 10.177/0268580911423053.
A Critical Ethnography of the Shimshal Road
Shimshal is a farming and herding community of about 110 households, located at 3,000m in the Karakoram Mountain Range, in Pakistan’s Northern Areas. For most of the community’s 400 year history, travel between the village and its nearest neighbour required a walk of at least a week along a difficult footpath that was impassable even for donkeys and yaks. It was several more days’ travel by pony track to Baltit, the capital of the fiefdom of Hunza, and an additional week or so beyond Baltit to Gilgit, the largest centre in what is now northern Pakistan and historically a staging point along the fabled Silk Route. In 1983 the community began to construct a road from Passu (their nearest neighbour, on the Karakoram Highway) to the village of Shimshal, initially with the assistance of the Aga Khan Rural Support Program, an NGO operating out of Gilgit, and later with funding and engineering support from the Government of Pakistan. As road construction proceeded, the time required to travel between Shimshal and Passu decreased, with a commensurate increase in traffic. The trip from Shimshal to the regional centre of Gilgit, which would have taken at least two weeks as recently as the mid 1960s, now takes less than ten hours.
The potential implications of this increase in accessibility for Shimshal are great, in terms of the movement of people and goods, the introduction of ideas and technology, the infiltration of government bureaucracy and commerce, the incorporation of the community into a regional economy and political structure, and so on. One of the advantages Shimshalis identify in ‘getting’ a road so late, and taking so long to construct it, is that it has given them time to think about how to manage these potential effects with reference to the community’s observations about what happened in other communities that went through a similar period of drastically increased accessibility a decade or two earlier.
After two decades of informal observations and conversations with Shimshals about the road, David Butz (Brock, Geography) and I have recently begun a more comprehensive, historically-grounded ethnography of social change in Shimshal in the context of increases in accessibility facilitated by the road’s construction. To the extent that our study will rely heavily on community-members’ own perspectives and experiences, it will also be an autoethnography of social change (Besio and Butz 2004; Butz and Besio 2004).
The results of this research - currently in its very early stages - will be important for several reasons. First, road building is a significant aspect of NGO development work and government infrastructure initiatives in northern Pakistan and throughout the developing world, but with little attention to micro-level implications for community members and with the assumption that effects will be generally positive. When implications are studied, they tend to focus strictly on economic benefits without considering social implications, and they seldom attempt to understand the perspectives of the people whose lives have been most directly affected by drastically increased accessibility. Second, while mountainous northern Pakistan is nearing the end of a period of rapid and intense road infrastructure development, little effort has been devoted to assessing whether the predictions of the meso-level models upon which this development was based are borne out on the ground. This study, while not aspiring to provide a regional-level evaluation of the social effects of infrastructural development, will develop a detailed case study that contributes to the early stages of that process of assessment. Third, because we have interview transcripts from a couple of years before the road was finished, which we will complement by conducting interviews a few years after the completion of the road, we will be able to describe shifts in villagers’ perspectives and concerns across a crucial transitional period. This is not a systematically longitudinal research project, but it does have a valuable longitudinal dimension that is rare in studies of this sort. Fourth, most studies of accessibility in rural parts of the developing world treat communities super-organically, and thus fail to tease out the variable implications of increasing accessibility for different groups within a community. Our study will do that because we will have in-depth qualitative information, and because we already have a strong sense of social (economic, political, gender, household, etc.) organisation in the community. Fifth, while Shimshalis have struggled long and hard to construct a road to their village, they are clearly also concerned about its implications for their lives. The results of this study will provide the community with an analysis that will allow the SNT to plan more carefully and knowledgeably for their future. Sixth, the study will provide a detailed analysis of an indigenous community in a rapid phase of transition. As such it will be a valuable contribution to ethnographic scholarship on the Karakorum region of Pakistan, and also to larger bodies of critical scholarship on development and modernisation in rural parts of the developing world.
2011. David Butz and Nancy Cook. Accessibility interrupted: The Shimshal road, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan. Canadian Geographer, 55(3): 354-364.
2011. Nancy Cook and David Butz. Narratives of Accessibility and Social Change in Shimshal, Northern Pakistan. Mountain Research and Development, 31(1): 27-34.
2010. Nancy Cook and David Butz. “Road Construction, Accessibility and Social Change in Shimshal, Pakistan.” Paper accepted for the Association of American Geographers annual conference April 14-18, Washington D.C.
2009. Nancy Cook and David Butz. “Development in the Fast Lane: The Impacts of Rural Road Construction in the Global South.” Paper presented at the Canadian Association for the Study of International Development (CASID) annual meeting May 27-29, Ottawa.
2008. Nancy Cook and David Butz. “Life in the fast lane: Travelling a new road in Shimshal, Pakistan.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Conference on South Asia, Madison WI, October.
2008. David Butz and Nancy Cook. “Living with the Road in Shimshal, Pakistan.” Paper presented in a session entitled Geographies of Asia at the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Association of Geographers, Quebec City, May.
2007. (ed.) Gender Relations in Global Perspective: Essential Readings. Toronto: Canadian Scholar’s Press (377 pages).
2001. The Discursive Constitution of Pakistani Women: The Articulation of Gender, Nation, and Islam. Atlantis: A Women’s Studies Journal 25(2): 31-41.
1999. The Thin Within the Thick: Social History, Postmodern Ethnography and Textual Practice. Histoire Sociale/Social History 32(63): 85-101.