Tatjana Thelen | Parcels to the East: Politically Important, Theoretically Overseen

Thursday, May 11, 2023
12:00 PM - 1:00 PM
Reuben W. Hills Conference Room
Encina Hall, Second Floor, East Wing, E207
616 Jane Stanford Way, Stanford, CA 94305
Tatjana Thelen

Why have the politically, economically, and emotionally significant parcels sent from West Germany to the Socialist East been neglected by social theory? In my talk, I will argue that ideas of modernity on both sides of the Iron Curtain produced a blind spot that is worth reconsidering.

During the time that two German states existed, parcels sent to the Socialist East were politically, economically, and emotionally important. Successive West German government campaigns supported them as symbols of unity through tax releases, school and poster campaigns. Millions of parcels were sent each year and the socialist governments reluctantly learned to rely on their economic value. Increasingly, the exchange included large kinship networks beyond individual relations. After unification, these networks quickly dissolved and the parcels became symbols of difference between relatives, as well as between East and West Germany more broadly. Despite their material and immaterial significance, these kinship practices represent an epistemic void. They play no role in the analyses of family sociologists and students of political transformation. In my talk, I ask why social scientists have not paid attention to these practices and argue that ideas of modernity on both sides of the Iron Curtain produced this blind spot. Taking these exchanges seriously could still eventually lead to new insights into the co-production of state and kinship.


Tatjana Thelen is Professor for Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Vienna and currently serves as Distinguished Visiting Austrian Chair at Stanford. She previously held positions at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology and at universities in Zurich, Bayreuth, Halle and Berlin. Her research has centred on postsocialist transformations in Hungary, Romania, Serbia and eastern Germany with a focus on property, welfare, kinship and state. Her latest co-edited book is The Politics of Making Kinship. Historical and Anthropological Perspectives (Berghahn 2023).

At Stanford, Tatjana is teaching the course ANTHRO 124C: Anthropology of the State in Winter 2023.

*If you need any disability-related accommodation, please contact Shannon Johnson at sj1874@stanford.edu. Requests should be made by May 4, 2023.