A review of Producing Culture, Producing Practice: Iranians in Sweden and Canada, by Amy Malek.
Amy Malek’s study investigates the role of cultural performances for the production of diasporic belonging. She does this by comparatively analysing ethnographic data from two case studies of Iranian cultural events organised by diasporic community members in Stockholm and Toronto respectively. Malek positions her work primarily in relation to studies of multiculturalism and diaspora studies. Her work offers an anthropological perspective that goes beyond a focus on the staged spectacle and rather follows the everyday lives of key figures in her multi-sited field. On the basis of a multi-scalar analysis, Malek argues that practices of cultural production are part of ongoing processes that dynamically produce diasporic citizenship through organized democratic participation, transnational cultural networks, and negotiations of positioning towards state authorities.
Malek starts out by introducing the reader to the sites and settings in which she carried out her fieldwork over the period between 2011 and 2013. In the Introduction, the reader becomes acquainted with the relevant policy background, the key actors, and the festival performances in question. These are Tirgan in Toronto, Canada and Eldfesten in Stockholm, Sweden; two sites chosen for the diversity of their growing urban populations of Iranians. The Introduction places the two festivals within the wider frame of the Iranian diaspora’s international centers for migration and cultural production across North America and Western Europe, sketching the political circumstances within the receiving countries. It also positions the work in relation to the sociology of migration, which has received criticism by anthropologists like Peggy Levitt for its focus on quantifying migrants’ socio-economic status while leaving out the cultural dynamics of their daily lives. This is also where Malek positions her research in relation to such work as that of Seyla Benhabib and Anne Philips, whose critique of multicultural policy interventions elides in-depth and ethnographic analysis of the implications of policy for migrants’ lives, a gap Malek’s research sets out to fill.
Chapters 1 and 2 are dedicated primarily to outlining the literature in the relevant fields. The former theoretically frames the study, conceptualizing diasporic citizenship and identity politics within multicultural societies, while the latter gives substantive, macro-level cultural and political background to the cases. Chapter 1 is also where Bourdieu’s important notion of field is discussed as forming the basis for the methodological approach toward the study of cultural production. This approach is undertaken such that a range of different parties and their respective positions of power are incorporated into the analysis of how diasporic Iranian culture is produced. Chapter 2 engages elaborately with the scholarship on multiculturalism, as well as tracing the policy debates that have shaped and politicized the associations with the term in national public spheres. The theoretical discussion draws heavily on Kymlicka’s arguments about the role of culture as a mode of accessing rights within liberal democracies, and multiculturalism as a mode of developing (migrant) citizenship. His work is discussed as highlighting the historical specificities of state contexts of implementing multicultural policies and advocating migrant rights to inclusion on equally specific terms. The second half of the Chapter goes on to discuss the historical context of multiculturalism in Sweden and Canada respectively. Malek’s purpose here is to lay bare the need for an understanding of diasporic inclusion that recognizes the importance of the conditions for cultural belonging to develop, the production of which is construed as being dependent not only on migrants’ responsibilities, but also protections offered by the state.
Chapters 3 and 4 present the analysis of the empirical case study, with the former dealing with the Swedish case and the latter, the Canadian. In Chapter 3 Malek argues that Swedish cultural policies that shaped the development of Eldfesten do not necessarily essentialize culture through the ideals of multiculturalism. Rather, in practice, they give rise to a complex dynamic involving democratic processes of deliberation, contestation, and negotiation over the meanings and status of Iranian culture, and who and what gets to define it. As Malek writes, “rather than finding multiculturalism operated as a straitjacket preventing cultural experimentation for Iranians in Stockholm, my research offers a case of cultural policy enabling creative re-interpretations of culture and critical dialogue” (p. 176). This argument forms the foundation for Malek’s claim that the potentials of multicultural policy have been too quickly dismissed in existing scholarship. Chapter 4 goes on to present the analysis of Tirgan in Toronto. Here Malek argues that the festival not only requires certain practices of her respondents in order to achieve the festival’s planned outcomes, but that these practices, in turn, also shape her respondents’ everyday experiences by implicating them within the organised spheres of practice within which Iranian culture is experienced transnationally. She shows how values around collaborative, team-oriented activities within the community partnership program that produces the festival shape everyday practices beyond festival preparations. She presents this as a process through which diasporic forms of citizenship – construed both locally and in connection with a cross-border collectivity – are produced in the process of cultural production practices.
Malek concludes by relating her findings to Los Angeles, California, the well-known Iranian diasporic hub of cultural production. She raises questions that generate further basis for comparison with this much-studied site for Iranian migration, thus casting this older, established site for Iranian migration in a new light. The implications of Malek’s research are not only uniquely relevant for future scholarship on the Iranian diaspora in LA: due to the wide comparative sweep, these findings are also potentially useful for diaspora practitioners, community organisers, and cultural producers, as well as being informative for policy-makers. This research makes a contribution to the study of Iranian diaspora communities in the developed West. While its comparative scope yields a unique perspective, it is perhaps even more original for its orientation towards tracing the connections of cultural practice developed between diaspora communities, and proposing a conceptual model for more accurately understanding this little-investigated facet of diasporic cultural identity formation.
Department of Social Sciences
Amsterdam University College
Interviews – identified respondents cited; additional respondents
Field observations – diasporic cultural organization meetings; festivals
Journalistic publications – New York Times; New York Time Magazine; Globe and Mail; CBC News
University of California, Los Angeles. 2015. 255 pp. Primary Advisors: Sondra Hale and Susan Slyomovics.
Image: Photograph by Author.