Questioning a Text

Tarek M. Mohamed, Fall 2019

Department of Anthropology, University of California, Irvine

Ethnographic Methods/ Professor Kim Fortun

Markets of Dispossession

NGOs, Economic Development, and the State in Cairo

By Julia Elyachar/ Duke University Press 2005

What is the text “about” -- empirically and conceptually?


What modes of inquiry were used to produce it?


How is the text structured and performed?


How can it circulate? 



What is the text about – empirically?

What phenomenon is drawn out in the text?  A social process; a cultural and political-economic shift; a cultural “infrastructure;” an emergent assemblage of science-culture-technology-economics?

- The text is an ethnographic reading of how Egyptian craftsmen and unemployed youth are being recruited by developmental agencies/organizations and the Egyptian state to join the new economic order of neoliberal markets by becoming entrepreneurs and starting their own microenterprises. 


Where is this phenomenon located – in a neighborhood, in a country, in “Western Culture,” in a globalizing economy?

- It is located in Egypt of the 1990s- new millennium; it’s located mainly in Cairo 


What historical trajectory is the phenomenon situated within?  What, in the chronology provided or implied, is emphasized -- the role of political or economic forces, the role of certain individuals or social groups?  What does the chronology leave out or discount?

The text looks at pre-third-millennium Egyptian state, mainly in the Mubarak era, where free markets and privatization were the main economic projects of the state. In that historical moment, we find traditional craftsmen, who work in a historical neighborhood that is named after their crafts, and who are being recruited by developmental agencies, NGOs and the state to be “transformed” intro entrepreneurs in order to catch the rapidly changing world of neoliberal global capitalism.


What scale(s) are focused on -- nano (i.e. the level of language), micro, meso, macro? What empirical material is developed at each scale?  

The text is situated in the craftsmen’ neighborhood in Cairo of late 1990s; however, through this temporal and geographical specificity, we are able to look not only at the social and political changes of Egypt of that time but also at neoliberal capitalism of the global turn and its new transnational forms of power.


Who are the players in the text and what are their relations?  Does the text trace how these relations have changed across time – because of new technologies, for example?

In the text we find the state and its actors, the developmental agencies with their international origins and local representatives, and we also have the craftsmen, their labor power and their social networks, but most importantly we have the “invisible” hands of the “free market”


What is the temporal frame in which players play?  In the wake of a particular policy, disaster or other significant “event?”  In the general climate of the Reagan era, or of “after-the-Wall” globalization? 

The after-the wall- globalization


What cultures and social structures are in play in the text?

 Egyptian culture, Islamic histories, Development, globalization and neoliberal capitalism

What kinds of practices are described in the text?  Are players shown to be embedded in structural contradictions or double-binds?

 Players are embedded in structural conditions; the main contradiction is between the labor power of the craftsmen and between the developmental agencies as the face of neoliberal globalized capitalism

How are science and technology implicated in the phenomenon described?

 Through the attempts to “develop” the craftsmen and turn their business into microenterprises

What structural conditions– technological, legal and legislative, political, cultural – are highlighted, and how are they shown to have shaped the phenomenon described in this text?

 Egypt is trying to live up to the expectations of globalizations, and the hope lies in the hands of craftsmen who are carrying on their shoulders histories and legacies and social networks of their crafts; in order to appropriate and exploit their labor power, they have to be sold into the importance of being transformed into entrepreneurs; this takes place through the working of neoliberal governmentalities and through loans.

How – at different scales, in different ways – is power shown to operate?  Is there evidence of power operating through language, “discipline,” social hierarchies, bureaucratic function, economics, etc? 

 Power manifests itself in different forms in the text, but most importantly implicitly through the governmentality; in other words, it is embedded in the way the NGOs’ people are transforming the traditional craftsmen into “modernized” entrepreneurs.

Does the text provide comparative or systems level perspectives?  In other words, is the particular phenomenon described in this text situated in relation to similar phenomenon in other settings?  Is this particular phenomena situated within global structures and processes? 

 I wouldn’t say the phenomena is situated in a comparative manner, but yes it is situated within global geopolitical economies.

What is the text about – conceptually?

Is the goal to verify, challenge or extend prior theoretical claims?

 To simultaneously challenge and extend the marxist understanding of dispossession from the perspective of capitalism

What is the main conceptual argument or theoretical claim of the text?  Is it performed, rendered explicit or both? 

 The main conceptual claim of the text is to complicate the way we understand how developmental efforts, which claim to be helping the Egyptian craftsmen, end up not only exploiting their labor forces but also appropriating their affect, social networks and friendships by turning them into assets that would feed global neoliberal capitalism. 

What ancillary concepts are developed to articulate the conceptual argument?

 The text plays on cultural and social understanding of dispossession, and it also unpacks the workings of neoliberal governmentalities.

How is empirical material used to support or build the conceptual argument?

 The numerous conversations that Elyachar had with the different actors in addition to her participant observations are integrated in the conceptual argument

How robust is the main conceptual argument of the text?  On what grounds could it be challenged?

 I Think the main conceptual argument is really solid, but it can be challenged on the grounds of how gender is integrated but only minimally

How could the empirical material provided support conceptual arguments other than those built in the text?

 I think another conceptual argument that could emerge from the empirical data can be one that looks at what constituted the category of an eligible candidate for being “developed”


Modes of inquiry?

What theoretical edifice provides the (perhaps haunting – i.e. non-explicit) backdrop to the text?

I think that while the text seems to be working through Marx, it goes beyond Marxist theories of class by expanding the understanding of how neoliberal capitalism works


What assumptions appear to have shaped the inquiry?  Does the author assume that individuals are rational actors, for example, or assume that the unconscious is a force to be dealt with?  Does the author assume that the “goal” of society is (functional) stability? Does the author assume that what is most interesting occurs with regularity, or is she interested in the incidental and deviant? 

Elyachar is looking at multiple actors; however, her main focus is the craftsmen themselves; she is attentive to how structures of power work, but she is also interested in how the craftsmen subvert, negotiate and challenge the workings of those structures of power


What kinds of data (ethnographic, experimental, statistical, etc.)  are used in the text, and how were they obtained?

 Ethnographic interviews mainly

If interviews were conducted, what kinds of questions were asked?  What does the author seem to have learned from the interviews?

Questions that were asked were mainly questions about how the craftsmen perceived the efforts of the state and the developmental to transform them into entrepreneurs


How was the data analyzed?  If this is not explicit, what can be inferred? 

I think the data was analyzed through being used to inform theory and using theory to inform the data


How are people, objects or ideas aggregated into groups or categories?

The people were aggregated into craftsmen and their social networks, state and state officials, NGOs and developmental agencies; objects and ideas were aggregated into traditional crafts (usually perceived as backward or outdated) and notions of neoliberal “development”


What additional data would strengthen the text? 


 I would say more visuals needed to be added to the text


Structure and performance?

What is in the introduction? Does the introduction turn around unanswered questions -- in other words, are we told how this text embodies a research project? 

I always admired the introduction of that text, because it sets the tone for it by raising intellectual questions about the political biases of the author. “The power of invisible bands” revisits what the invisible hands of free market in the -wanna-be-globalized Egypt look like, and how power that is embedded in them functions. 


Where is theory in the text?  Is the theoretical backdrop to the text explained, or assumed to be understood? 

 The theory is manifested, explained at moments and assumed at other moments throughout the text; in other words, if it is not written in the lines, then speaks for itself from between the lines.

What is the structure of the discourse in the text?  What binaries recur in the text, or are conspicuously avoided?

There seems to be a binary between the craftsmen, who try to hold to the legacies of their crafts, and between the state and developmental agencies on the other; however, Julia Elyachar does a perfect job complicating and problematizing that binary.


How is the historical trajectory delineated?  Is there explicit chronological development?

No, there is no chronological development; rather, it is a thematic development


How is the temporal context provided or evoked in the text?

 The temporal is evoked through the ways Elyachar looks at the everydayness of the craftsmen, and how history is reproduced, negotiated and challenged in this everydayness

How does the text specify the cultures and social structures in play in the text?

It does so by looking at the conversations between the different actors; the state, the developmental agencies, the craftsmen and their social networks


How are informant perspectives dealt with and integrated? 

 They are embedded in the ethnography, and their perspectives are integrated in a multilayered conversation throughout the text.

How does the text draw out the implications of science and technology? At what level of detail are scientific and technological practices described?

 I think science and technology are not explicitly invoked in the conversation; however, they are manifested in the stress by the developmental agencies on the need to “modernize” the craftsmen and the way they run their businesses.

How does the text provide in-depth detail – hopefully without losing readers?

The in-depth detail is provided through the descriptions of the temporal moments, the spaces and places, the everyday lives of the craftsmen, but most importantly though moving flexibly from descriptions to anecdotes to interviews and to analyses.


What is the layout of the text?  How does it move, from first page to last?  Does it ask for other ways of reading? Does the layout perform an argument?

It moves in a linear manner that situates the Egyptian craftsmen not only in the very sociopolitical moment that the text covers, but it relates them to the older urban history of where they live, work, and where they turn into entrepreneurs. The layout of the text deepens and strengthens the argument of it


What kinds of visuals are used, and to what effect?

Some pictures from the neighborhoods, where the craftsmen worked; they provided a visual situation of the interlocutors and their everyday realities


What kind of material and analysis are in the footnotes?

Either more references on Egyptian history, or references to interviews that Elyachar conducted


How is the criticism of the text performed?  If through overt argumentation, who is the “opposition”? 

It is a criticism that targets multiple actors and factors; it criticizes the way neoliberal global capitalism works, the way developmental institutions reproduce exploitation of laborers, and how the Egyptian state is co opting the craftsmen skills and businesses. 


How does the text situate itself?  In other words, how is reflexivity addressed, or not?

Julia didn’t seem to be reflexive on her positionality; however, the text itself is reflexive in the way it unpacks the multilayered realities of the Egyptian Craftsmen and the gendered dynamics of those realities.



Who is the text written for?  How are arguments and evidence in the text shaped to address particular audiences?

While the text might seem to be addressing academics who are interested in Egypt mainly, I find its language and the way it is written engaging and not overly sophisticated.


What all audiences can you imagine for the text, given its empirical and conceptual scope?

Egyptian scholars, researchers and activists who are interested in class struggles in the neoliberal era


What new knowledge does this text put into circulation?  What does this text have to say that otherwise is not obvious?

The ways in which neoliberal governmentality work in favor of “free markets”


How generalizable is the main argument?  How does this text lay the groundwork for further research?

Elyachar did a great job understanding and unpacking ways in which the social networks of the Egyptian craftsmen are being commodified and appropriated by neoliberal global capitalism. I think this aspect specifically provides a groundwork for further research on the monetization of social networks can be done in other contexts.


What kind of “action” is suggested by the main argument of the text? 

That we need to expand our understanding of how dispossession in the neoliberal market is embodied and manifested

Other modes of expression? 

Describe how the material and arguments of this text could be presented in a form other than that of a conventional scholarly book -- as a graphic novel, museum exhibit, activist stunt, or educational module for kids, for example? 

The material and arguments of the text could be presented in the form of a documentary


Creative Commons Licence



Contributed date

October 13, 2019 - 9:39pm

Critical Commentary

This sketch was done for UCI Anthro, Ethnographic Methods, Fall 2019

Cite as

Anonymous, "MOHAMED, TAREK: QUESTIONING AN ETHNOGRAPHIC TEXT: ELYACHAR, JULIA: MARKETS OF DISPOSSESSION:NGOS, ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT AND THE STATE IN CAIRO", contributed by Tarek Moustafa Mohamed, Center for Ethnography, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 15 October 2019, accessed 18 July 2024.