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Social Conflict and Environmental Challenges in Asia and the Pacific Graduate Program
In conversation with Professor Assa Doron
Have you ever wondered about the cultural connotations behind ethically sourced hair extensions? Or the iconic statuses of certain products in a country? Or what’s behind the magnetic appeal and our connection to seemingly exotic places? If yes, the ANU School of Culture, History & Language (CHL) has just the thing for you—the Social Conflict and Environmental Challenges in Asia and the Pacific graduate program.
We recently caught up with Course Convener and Deputy Director, Research at CHL, Professor Assa Doron to talk about the multifaceted aspects of the course.
1. What’s the story behind the genesis of this course?
This course began several years back, when Professor Andrew McWilliam and I wanted to share our research work on the urgent environmental concerns plaguing Asia and the Pacific, including climate catastrophe, deforestation, toxic landscapes, punishing labour regimes, exploitative supply global supply chains, industrial agribusiness and migration patterns. Students really enjoyed it, I think, because it brought historical and anthropological perspectives to current issues of migrant labour, pollution, commerce and public health, to name a few.
2. Why is this course relevant today?
One of the aims of the course is to try and make one reflect, not only about Asia, but also about our own connections to these seemingly 'exotic' places. So we look at our own patterns of consumption, food security, trade relations, and disposal mechanisms (like dumping waste in Asia) and the conflicts and tensions they generate, and the underlying ideologies and values that might drive such practices and conflicts. Our relationship with the environment has often been that of command and control, but that is looking less and less viable; the planet is not ours for the taking. And so we look at these issues, for example, by examining famines and 'natural disasters' from the colonial period to the circulation of global toxins, animal and microbial life, to Australia's massive fires in 2019–2020, and right up to the Covid-19 Pandemic, and how all these phenomena are intrinsically tied to our way of life and environmental degradation.
3. What would you say are the top 3 reasons to study this course?
It's really good if you want to be a hairdresser! In this course, we discuss where one might procure ethically sourced hair extensions. More specifically, we look at things like the global industry of hair trade, which I stumbled upon in the course of working on waste and sanitation in India. Waste hair is big business and, in anthropology, hair was always considered a powerful and magical substance—religiously, in exchange relations. So that’s one example of how contemporary trade and waste practices can be analysed from an anthropological lens, not least when we consider the way hair takes on multiple lives and reached far-flung places in Asia, Africa and the Americas. Tracing the twisted journeys of humans and non-humans is extremely important if we want to better understand power relations, cultural practices and social change. The course also traces the social life of E-waste, and global commodities like Maggi noodles, mobile phones and the palm oil, all of which are tied to questions around culture as much as about governance, and policy practice and, of course, environmental degradation.
So, the three reasons to study this course are: to perhaps think differently and more critically about our own way of life, to be more informed about Asia and the Pacific, and to understand the significance of cultural ideologies and social relations and the way they shape structures of governance, commerce and policy practice.
4. What kinds of career opportunities does this open?
I have had students who took the course and then went on to work in the public service. One student said she found it useful when she got involved in implementing the model of the circular economy and how to incorporate it into governance structures. Others opted for NGOs and development institutions. What I hope a course like this can also offer students is a holistic perspective, and the critical tools to analyse policy and practice; so, for example, for those going to work in industry, understanding the ethical and environmental concerns that shape places and influence populations can help formulate more informed policy decisions and an approach to best practice.
5. Can you share an interesting anecdote that relates to your experience teaching this course?
One of my students from China wrote a fascinating essay on the packaging industry and Amazon, the highly problematic nature of the Amazon-type convenience economy and its effects on the environment and labour relations. This was interesting, because he not only uncovered some disturbing data, but also critically reflected on the diverse types of packaging in the market and potential for change.
Whether it’s hairdressing, Maggi noodle culture, or just universal facets of culture and change in the Asia and the Pacific, Professor Assa Doron’s perspectives certainly bring forth some very interesting food for thought. We look forward to hearing more from him and his students on the thought-provoking themes that are thrown open for debate and discussion as part of the wide and versatile banner that CHL offers.
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