Reading Tools by Or Pansky ’20 and Kgomotso Magagula ’21

The exploration of some the themes in Land of Open Graves below aims to assist readers as they dive into Jason De León’s work. The engagement below has been adapted from notes for an Introduction to Anthropology Course.

Hybrid Collectif 

In the Land of Open Graves, Jason De León attempts to contextualize the complexity of the United States’ migration policy of Prevention Through Deterrence (PDT), through the theoretical insights of Michel Callon and John Law. According to Callon and Law “agency is an emergency property created by the interaction of many heterogeneous components known as actants (those are sources of action that can be human or nonhuman)” (De León 2015: 39). Agency is constructed through complex relationships between people or objects coalescing together. The PTD policy executed by the U.S leverages the topography of the Southern border, pushing migrants into the edges of the wall in areas that construction has not occurred yet, but the terrain is the one that physically prevents migrants from managing to cross the border. By using the concept of the hybrid collectif, De León exemplifies how first, humans come to be decentered, and second, the US government displaces responsibility upon the environment for the deaths that occur in the desert, although they continuously use tracking technology to identify many migrants that are later found dead. 


Jason De León understands this concept through the writing of Achille Mbembe, defining the necropolitical as an expression of sovereignty. Namely, Mbembe argues that the ultimate expression of sovereignty is the ability to dictate who may live and who may die (De León 2015: 66-67). This can be understood through a hierarchy of those that are deemed to live and those who are relegated to the realm of the dying. In this sense, Prevention Through Deterrence (PTD), is utilized by the United States to express its sovereignty, marking migrants to the realm of death through making use of the hybrid collectif (namely all those human and non-human actors that form agency) to move their migration routes towards the desert where they have to face conditions that are meant to deter them from crossing into the United States through death. 

Structural Violence

Structural violence is violence exerted systematically and thus indirectly by everyone who belongs to a certain social order. This provokes discomfort in a moral economy that is still geared to pinning praise or blame on individual actors. Structural violence as a concept is intended to inform the study machinery of oppression which results from the exercise of power embedded in the institutions of a community or culture. In the Land of Open Graves, Jason De León recognizes the difficulty in assigning responsibility and/or blame for the outcomes of immigration policies as they are deemed separate from individual policymakers. The framing in mainstream media, and in practice, is that border crossing is an individual choice made by migrants and thus U.S authorities are exempt from being held accountable for the death of people choosing to cross through the existing border structures. The people who die in the desert, regardless of the circumstances, are seen as “illegal” noncitizens who broke US law (De León 2015: 26-27). It is important to remember that legality does not equate justice. Jason De León’s engagement of the temporal changes in immigration policies calls attention to the racial/ethnic constructs that have defined US history. This highlights that the policies applied at the US/Mexico border are grounded in the demands of whiteness and cannot be removed from the conceptualization of WHO is considered “American.” 

Method of Ethnography

Jason De León uses multiple anthropological frameworks to produce the ethnographical work of the Land of Open Graves. These include archaeology, linguistics, cultural, biological and visual anthropology. These methods aim to describe the experience when crossing the border, how it is done and who, systematically, is marked for life or death. The fieldwork in the Land of Open Graves provides experiential and subjective information. Through the long-term, immersive perspective we are granted a highly contextual text.

We will continue to update this resource through the summer.

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