Engaging with Culture

Emily Lynch ’03 knew as an Earlham Sociology/Anthropology (SOAN) major that she enjoyed being with people and exploring social dynamics in everyday life.

Earlham set her on a path to listen closely and to critically inquire while learning to ask good questions. Lynch is finishing her doctorate in Social Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin and plans to continue teaching and researching.

Lynch returned during the spring of 2013 to Earlham to conduct an advanced ethnographic writing workshop with senior SOAN majors working on their senior theses, which were culled from fieldwork they conducted throughout the fall.

“We asked what makes ethnography good?” she says. “Then students put these criteria to work as they grappled with writing their own ethnographies.” Through the workshop, students came to understand ethnographic writing as textured, descriptive, analytical and sensory-based.

“Ideally, ethnography should evoke for the reader a series of rich images and scenes about social relations, which are then bound within a strong analysis,” Lynch says. “Students worked hard toward that goal.”

She also gave a public talk about her doctoral dissertation, “Immobilized Life: Humanitarianism and the Everyday in a Refugee Camp,” based on her extensive fieldwork in a refugee camp in Rwanda that has hosted Congolese since 1997.

Choosing Anthropology

“I have always been drawn to anthropology, to how the field of social relations and cultural forms are not obvious or transparent,” Lynch says. “Culture is slippery. What we say we do, and what we actually do is often highly varied and that is truly compelling. It is the role of an ethnographer and the anthropologist to suss out how modes of social relations are built, lived and articulated. Context and subjectivity matter — the how and the why.”

Lynch says the social field and culture is always relational to a host of competing forces and people in any given place. This compelled her to pursue a doctorate in anthropology.

“When I was an undergraduate, Earlham was a delightful place of critical engagement, and especially among the faculty in the SOAN Department who initially taught me how to ask good questions — questions that are critically minded and open up spaces for different ways of thinking that are often messy, complicated and generative,” she says. “The instruction that I refer to is the foundation for critical inquiry and modes of thinking that, in turn, produces new forms of knowledge. In other words, the world we live in is incredibly complex, and the department here facilitates ways of thinking about the complicated and often controversial world we find ourselves in, and as anthropologists, study. The SOAN department rigorously pursues and facilitates complex thinking on par with the complexity of our world.”

After graduation, Lynch embarked on a series of different jobs including employment in a series of art museums, teaching in urban city schools, and instruction within the field of media literacy before returning to academia.

“I did a lot of different things trying to find out what is compelling to me and how I might engage it in a way that is satisfying,” Lynch says.

Lessons from the Field

During her three years in the Great Lakes region of east Africa, Lynch’s academic interests focused on refugees and forced migration, humanitarian intervention and settings, protracted conflict and displacement, resettlement systems, repatriation networks, trauma and resilience, and everyday life. In the Gihembe refugee camp in Rwanda, Lynch studied the social dynamics and conditions that caused refugees to flee eastern Congo, the experience of trauma and humanitarian intervention in the camp, and refugees’ mechanisms for coping and surviving in tremendous adversity and hardship. She claims that as old crises are left unresolved and new crises emerge, the stakes to “understand the refugee experience are more pressing than ever,” and that as a result of protracted conflicts, refugees often live long-term in forced migration contexts. This has become an enduring state of existence for millions of people across the world.

Her extensive ethnographic fieldwork involved daily participation and observation with the life in the refugee camp.

“Refugees in Gihembe have inhabited this camp since 1997, with minimal access to employment, citizenship, education or repatriation due to the on-going violence in eastern Congo,” she says. “Materially, there is never enough of anything in the camp. Provisions for food and housing and other basic items like water and soap are often insufficient in quantity and quality. Appeal after appeal is made to remedy the situation while the organizations administering the camp claim they are trying to resolve these problems.

“But everyone knows this life is really about waiting and making do with the time that is left in between what had been in the past, at home in North Kivu before war, and what might be in the future,” she said during her talk. “They also know that despite humanitarian interests in sculpting the refugee as more self-sufficient or as an independently mobile subject, the point of the camp is that the people are provided for and cannot easily leave.”

Lynch’s dissertation focuses on the paradox involved in what she calls “life-enhancing mobilizations,” and centers on how refugees are cared for, but to what ends? “What is the quality of this life? What forms of violence and suffering are also inflicted by the humanitarian apparatus tasked with facilitating the life contained in camp? What is the refugee life like living under these conditions? How bare can life be?” she says.

Lynch has completed fieldwork in Gihembe and Kigali, Rwanda, and Belfast and Coleraine, Northern Ireland, and has served as a South Asia Institute Research Assistant and as Intellectual Entrepreneurship Program Mentor at the University of Texas at Austin. She has served as a research assistant at three posts in Northern Ireland and also has served as a consultant to the International Refugee Rights Initiative in Rwanda.

Lynch is the current recipient of the 2012 William C. Powers Graduate Fellowship and The Bruton Continuing Fellowship Award at The University of Texas at Austin.

Emily Lynch
Emily Lynch 2003

Hometown: Austin, Texas

Major at Earlham: Sociology/Anthropology

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