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The School for Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London has conferred an honorary doctorate on Jan Breman, emeritus professor of the University of Amsterdam, for research he conducted in Southern Asia. Breman’s research is unique in many respects and focuses on the large group of indigents that remain invisible in most anthropological studies. Breman has been conducting research in this area for well over half a century.

Breman has observed that the majority of anthropological studies bear the hallmarks of the middle and upper classes, while the bulk of the lowest-paid workers and indigents remain off the radar. The emeritus professor explains why: ‘Most academics come from a higher-class background and therefore find it easier to approach representatives of this class for their own research. Breman, whose parents were Frysian skippers, grew up in a poor neighbourhood in Amsterdam after the family was forced to migrate to the city as a result of economic hardship. No longer able to carry out their vocation in the city, Breman’s parents were eventually forced to take up employment as postman and housemaid. ‘My own background served as a source of inspiration for my own research; I wanted to devote attention to the indigent, and they abound.’

You visited villages in Southern Asia in 1962 and always return to these villages to conduct research. To what extent have circumstances in those villages changed during the past half a century?

Many changes have taken place – the city, for instance, has become more accessible to villagers – yet these people still perform menial, low-paying work and are denied a dignified existence.

Do you feel inclined to combat poverty and injustice, as an activist, for instance?

I believe researchers shouldn’t act as activists. You need to focus on research and understand how far you can go. My role is to increase knowledge and awareness. Over the course of the years, more and more has been written about the marginalised groups who form the core of my research. In that respect, my work does have a significant impact.

Will circumstances ever improve for the large majority?

I generally expect that they will indeed improve. In the past, I used to see underfed children eating earth. This is no longer the case. However, I have to say that the gap between rich and poor is still widening. While the poor are not getting poorer, the richer are indeed getting richer. I’m still optimistic, however, and refuse to be mired in dejection. Circumstances can improve, but many things also depend on the willingness of wealthier nations.

What responsibility does the Western world have in this context?

What is striking is that the Western world isn’t a shining example any longer – the European welfare state is disintegrating and the role of the informal economy is becoming more important, which in turn is detrimental to actual employment. The West follows the rest, rather than the other way around. On the other hand, the sky is still the limit in many European countries. We should be prepared to take a step back, to trade fairly and not to achieve growth at the expense of everyone and everything.

 

Jan Bremen will receive the honorary doctorate on 26 July 2013.