Saturday, March 13, 2021

Marit Tolo Østebø's "Village Gone Viral"

Marit Tolo Østebø is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Florida.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Village Gone Viral: Understanding the Spread of Policy Models in a Digital Age, and reported the following:
On page 99, which concludes chapter 4, I very briefly discuss why Awra Amba – a small rural village in Ethiopia that has become a model for gender equality and sustainable development – has concealed its historical links to a Sufi-inspired, marginalized Muslim community known as Alayhim. Given that Awra Amba once also was an ostracized society I suggest that this narrative may be a means of self-protection; of preserving the wide recognition the community currently holds. ““Is it unethical to write about and reveal this connection? If I do, whose interests do I serve?” I ask, before I promise the reader that I will return to these questions in chapter 8. I then end the chapter with two transition sentences: “But how and why did Awra Amba become a traveling model in the first place? These are the questions I turn to in the next two chapters.”

When I applied the 99 Page Test to my book, I first thought this page would not give the reader a good idea of what the book is all about. But after giving it a thought, I realized that the page touches upon key issues I discuss in the book. I wrote Village Gone Viral, because I wanted to make sense of the role and politics of models and model making in an increasingly digital and transnational world. What constitutes models within the policy world and how do they come into being? What characterizes the models that gain status as ‘best practices’ and go viral? And what happens to the original model once it becomes a traveling model? In Chapter 4, which is dedicated to the first question, I argue that model making can best be understood as a process of idealization; of ordering a complex assemblage. This is a process in which actors who benefit from the model and its status as an ideal type or utopia accentuate certain desirable elements of a perceived reality, while erasing or silencing elements that may create unwanted complexity. In the Awra Amba case, the disruptive elements are most clearly captured in its partly hidden past – more specifically, in the community’s historical and ideological links to Alayhim.

To reveal hidden stories, or to tell a story that challenges dominant narratives, is always challenging. Words and stories are not only powerful; just like a virus, they tend to have a life of their own, often independent of the author’s intentions. As I have been researching what I in the book call “the Awra Amba viral assemblage” concerns about ethics have therefore been on my mind. Should I even tell this story? When I finally made up my mind to write a book that would challenge the official Awra Amba narrative I did so for two reasons. First, I felt ethically obliged to convey the hidden stories because they are revealing of the inequalities and injustices that models create and hide. Second, I was convinced that the ethnographic account I offer has the power to create a much-needed contextual understanding of the strengths and limitations inherent in the model paradigm.
Learn more about Village Gone Viral at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue