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Researcher profile: Don Kulick

Don Kulick has always worked with groups who have been vulnerable in different ways, for example in the rainforest in Papua Nya Guinea or in a favela in Brazil. PHOTO: MIKAEL WALLERSTEDT

“Vulnerability generates demands”

In January last year, Uppsala University received a record grant of SEK 80 million to recruit Don Kulick, Professor of Anthropology. He will lead an interdisciplinary research programme about new perspectives on vulnerability and is now in place to establish a new research environment.

Don Kulick’s office at the Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology bears witness to the fact that he has yet to fully move in to Uppsala University. The bookshelves remain bare, and neither a computer nor paper are to be found on the desk. But the work to assemble a research group is underway and he expects to have a research environment ready by autumn.

The research programme “Engaging Vulnerability” has received funding for the next ten years to contribute new knowledge and perspectives on vulnerability. The starting point of the research is to study groups and phenomena in society based on a new perspective that approaches vulnerability as a resource, and not only as a limitation or shortcoming.

The new programme will build on philosophical ideas about responsibility and ethics that emphasise vulnerability as a relationship that places demands on accountability and involvement, for example. Don Kulick’s interest in vulnerability and how it affects people’s behaviour evolved from his earlier research.

“As an anthropologist, I’ve always worked with groups who have been vulnerable in different ways. While living in the rainforest in Papua Nya Guinea or in a favela in Brazil, I too have been in extremely vulnerable situations and in need of help. I have experienced how vulnerability produces interactions and creates relationships many times,” he explains.

Don Kulick came to Sweden from the US as an exchange student in the early 1980s and was interested in languages from the start. He began studying linguistics at Lund University but soon realised that what truly fascinated him was the combination of people and languages.

“I’m interested in how people talk to each other and why they talk the way they do. That led me to anthropology.”

In the early 1990s, he earned a doctorate in anthropology with a dissertation on language socialisation and the death of a language in Papua New Guinea.

“I was there for 15 months and studied a language with very few speakers called Tayap. At that time, it was spoken by 89 people. Today, only about 45 people still use it actively.”

Don Kulick learned both Tayap and Papua New Guinea’s main language on location, and he lived with the people he studied. He is still working on describing the language and has travelled back and forth between Sweden and Papua New Guinea for several years.

“After completing my dissertation, I went back to work on a grammatical description of the language, but it became so dangerous to be in the country that conducting research there was impossible. I was able to start going back again in 2006 and now I’m writing a book about what’s happening with the language,” he says.

“I fully expect that everything else I write will be forgotten with time, but if I manage to describe this language, it will be my little contribution to the trove of human knowledge.”

When the safety situation in Papua New Guinea became too strenuous, Don Kulick decided to research something else. He had been to Brazil as a tourist and began to work with Brazilian transvestites who made a living as sex workers.
“Gender and sexuality have always interested me and I decided on these people.”

Even in Brazil, he began learning the language from the fundamentals. “The language became my gateway to the group. They taught me Portuguese and most of what I know about Brazil, I learned when I lived with them in a poor, dangerous part of the city of Salvador.”

His work in Brazil resulted in the book “Travesti: Sex, Gender, and Culture Among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes”. It has become something of an academic bestseller and is used in courses on gender and sexuality worldwide.

In his most recent fieldwork, he has continued to work according to the same method. Together with historian Jens Rydström at Lund University, he has studied the sex lives of adults with disabilities.

“The study is a comparison between Sweden and Denmark and also got me to learn the language on location. As an anthropologist, the most interesting things are often what you hear in passing, without directly asking a question. That’s why it’s crucial to be able to talk to people the way that they talk in order to get close to them.”

While the work has been underway, Don Kulick has periodically lived in group homes for adults with severe disabilities to study their daily lives.
“You’re always on, and it can be quite exhausting. But if I hadn’t lived on site, I never would have gotten all this information.”

To do a good job as an anthropologist, you have to be curious, unpretentious and persistent. You also have to be able to handle being perceived as ignorant, and even a bit stupid.

“You’re often viewed as an idiot by the people you’re working with. And you are an idiot; what do I know about life in the rainforest or as a sex worker or someone with a severe disability? The people I work with are always the experts.”

Conducting field work as an anthropologist is indeed different from the day-to-day work of most people. The subject of his next research project is not completely clear yet. He might have to learn Japanese this time.

“Right now, I’m looking at what’s been done in Japan in research on the elderly. I’ve also developed an interest in how people with Hansen’s disease – what used to be called leprosy – live in Japan, to really talk about vulnerability. I’ve started to learn Japanese, which I’ve realised is a little like saying, ‘I’ve started to climb Mount Everest’. Yikes.”

Josefin Svensson

Don Kulick – facts

Title: Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology

Family: Partner Jonas and two gluttonous cats.

Makes me mad: People who speak loudly into their mobile phones on the subway, bus or train and act as though the people around them are invisible or non-existent.

Makes me glad: Fresh squeezed orange juice with breakfast (especially if Jonas is the one who made it, rather than me).

Last book read: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood (a disappointment).

Motto: “Mind the gap”.