Monday, January 29, 2007

Representing individuals', groups' identities

This is a paper about how my work might be presenting or representing individuals and groups by the identities I categorise them with. It was written as part of my MSc in Social Research Methods. It was me thinking through some things and wasn't final.

Although I hope I have not, I may have made mistakes or misinterpretations. (It's also worth remembering that people are referred to sometimes because they represent the thing being discussed and sometimes because they themselves discussed it.)
I don't want to say it's not for circulation or quotation, but I would appreciate the benefit of the doubt if I've said something that sounds lazy, ignorant or stupid (and if people are going to use others' work that I've discussed, they should read it themselves, as here they're only seeing my understanding of the others' work).

People, communities, cultures, nations: Presenting and representing individuals and groups in research.

Cultural heritage work involves understanding and evaluating competing claims to authenticity and legitimacy of property ownership and social practice, which are grounded in the assertions of membership of identifiable cultural entities.
Mediating between these claims in violently divided societies presents not only greater theoretical challenges but also greater practical dangers, as the 'acquisition of knowledge [ostensibly] for knowledge's sake' (Smyth, 2001: 4) is impossible - and undesirable - when people are 'willing to fight over... archaeological sites' (Kohl and Fawcett, 1995: 11).
This discussion will consider the issues surrounding researchers' categorisations of individuals and groups by their (chosen or imposed) collective identities; it does so in order to work through (or around) problems that have emerged and make heritage work at once accurate, practicable and beneficial.
It will:
  • first, explore what is implied by the use of people (not peoples), communities, cultures and nations (or peoples) as types of group, as it is these that individuals are negotiating through and on behalf of;
  • second, examine the process of identifications and categorisations of individuals and groups, as these are the means by which people communicate and negotiate; and
  • third, scrutinise the propositions of postcolonialism and feminism regarding presentation and representation in research, as these are the means by which heritage workers intervene in those social struggles.
Conceptions of communities, cultures and nations have varied (sometimes greatly) and continue to do so and there is insufficient space to do these debates justice; here, the debates and their current conclusions will have to be summarised (though it is recognised that this is itself reductive and generalising and this is a point that will re-emerge later).
Early uses of the term community were equivalent with state or society (or common people), but later it came to signify the 'people of a district' or those who held 'something in common', whether it was interests or identity (Williams, 1976: 65).
The term community has been used to indicate a minority group within majority society - for example a 'community of women' within 'male society' (Das, 1990: 361) or communities within communities, for instance the 'homogeneous community of the dead' (ibid.: 361) and '[heterogeneous] communities of survivors' (ibid.: 393) within the Sikh community in Delhi (ibid.: 388).

Distinctions between community as locality, interest or identity may be dissolved as it is recognised:
  • that they are interdependent, common identity legitimising actions towards common interests and common interests substantiating experiences of common identity (McMillan and George, 1986: 3-4; Meegan and Mitchell, 2001: 2171-2172; Pattillo, 2003: 1051-1053);
  • that individuals are always members of more than one community - both a woman and a survivor, a man and a victim (Baumann, 1996: 10); and
  • that membership of each community may strengthen or weaken the feeling of belonging to each of the others - a female survivor whose interests were served by being Hindu, men and women whose interests were served by their mutual cooperation and self-defence as Sikhs, a male survivor whose interests were not served by being Sikh (Cohen, 1985: 12-15).
Communities, then, may be defined as groups whose members feel they belong together because of common interest and common identity (and dissociate themselves from those categorised as different, though there will be disagreements between and within communities as to what the markers and boundaries are).

Disregarding understandings of culture as Lamarckian 'adaptation' (Binford, 1962: 220; see also Clarke, 1978 [1968]: 35; Renfrew, 1972: 17), it has three major early forms:
  • culture as a 'process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development';
  • culture as the 'works and practices' of those processes; and
  • a culture as a 'particular way of life' (Williams, 1976: 80; see also Childe, 1933: 198; Wagner, 1981: 21-22; Williams, 1981 [1961]: 43).
The major later way of construing culture is: as loose, partially 'shared conventions' (Wagner, 1981: 36) or 'webs of significance' (Geertz, 1973: 5) through which communication is made possible and in which people act.

The notion of culture has been applied:
  • to the analysis of political struggles, as the 'political principle' from which people legitimise their struggles is based upon those shared understandings of the world and conventions of acting in and upon it (Wilson, 2002: 230; see also Ashplant, Dawson and Roper, 2000: 16-17; Gramsci, 1977 [1919]: 74; Willis, 1990: 183); and
  • to the analysis of social activities such as cockfighting or amateur wrestling as a 'story [people] tell themselves about themselves' to make sense of their lives (Geertz, 1990: 121; see also Barthes, 1990: 90; Clifford, 1988: 337-339; Rosaldo, 1993: 26).
It is through these that distinctions between culture as process, product or practice have been broken down, as they are interrelated forms, cultural activities and their products being (perceived as) indicative and constitutive of a (conceived) culture and producers' conceptions of "their" and "other" cultures informing their conforming and dissenting activities (Williams, 1981 [1961]: 45-47).
Cultures may thus, like communities, be characterised as groups whose members believe they belong together because of common identity and interest; the only discernible difference is that culture does create the 'expectation of roots [and] of a stable, territorialized existence' (Clifford, 1988: 338 - emphasis added).

Again discounting conceptions of 'organic', 'natural' groups (Smith, 1983: 16; see also Kellas, 1991; van den Berghe, 1978; Wilson, 1975), where an individual's autonomy is the 'expression of that of [their] nation-state' (Smith, 1983: 17) (1), collectives variously called nations, peoples and ethnic groups have been identified:
  • simply - indeed simplistically - as people who 'desire to live together' and construct their memories and expectations accordingly (Renan, 1996 [1882]: 47; see also Deudney, 1996: 130; Hughes, 1994 [1948]: 91; Taylor, 1996 [1995]: 5); or
  • as those who 'share the same culture' and 'recognise each other' as doing so (Gellner, 1983: 7 - original emphasis; see also Gellner, 1997: 29) (2);
  • as those who have a 'common background' (Jenkins, 1997: 10); or
  • as a bounded, sovereign 'imagined political community' with common interests (Anderson, 1991: 6; see also Hobsbawm, 1992: 20; Orentlicher, 2000 [1998]: 1251).
The idea of a primordial people - in some sense a 'chosen people' (Silberman, 1995: 257; see also Weber, 1978: 391) - has been deployed in many forms. One notable case is the state of Macedonia (3), which has variously been alleged to be a natural, national constituent of Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia by those states' nationalists - and its nationalists, in turn, have laid claim to "lost" Macedonians living within those states.
This is further complicated by the identities and boundaries perceived being differently perceived by each group - whether they are nationalist Bulgarians, Macedonian Greeks, socialist Macedonians, Yugoslav Serbs or whatever else (each of these groups being more divisible - pluralist Yugoslav Serbs and so on); these assertions are maintained in spite of the fact that many of the people claimed by each putative nation actively reject the categorisations made (Karakasidou, 1997: 14-17; see also Brown, 2003: 244-249). In this context, ethnic groups are those who have a 'consistent [but not singular] pattern of acting, conceiving and portraying their collective membership' (Karakasidou, 1997: 19 - emphasis added; see also Schutz, 1976 [1944]: 108).

Divisions between nation as freely chosen solidarity or as identity or interest borne of experience may be dissolved when it is acknowledged:
  • that identities are never freely chosen, always contextual and relational (Clifford, 1988: 10); and
  • that, as noted before, common identity and common interest are mutually reinforcing (Pattillo, 2003: 1051-1053).
As defined, nation could be identical to culture (as it is defined by some, such as Kymlicka (1995: 18) explicitly and others, such as Parekh (1999: 66) implicitly), but, beyond belief in shared culture or social origins, conceptions of nationness ultimately require belief in shared biological origins, however imprecise or even inconsistent (Eriksen, 2002: 4-13; Geertz, 1963: 109; Jones, 1997: 84; Pogge, 1997: 193; Shils, 1957: 122).
These ties, unlike those of community and culture, are felt to be innate, 'singular options' (Elwert, 1997: 259; Gil-White, 1999: 808; Jones, 1997: 84); hence, nations may be identified as groups whose members feel they belong together because of common origins.

Although all are 'communities of shared memory' (Jones, 1997: 1), communities, cultures and nations may be distinguished as groups that formed initially from experiences of common interest, common identity and common origins, respectively, though as discussed, not only are the various experiences mutually informative in people's experience of communities, cultures and nations, but so experiences of the communities, cultures and nations themselves are mutually constitutive (Jenkins, 1997: 11; Jones, 1997: 84).
The use of the term people will imply that, either from that perspective or in those circumstances, communities, cultures and nations may not be spoken of, because they necessitate unacceptable reductions and generalisations.

At this point, having explored the forms of the groups being presented, it is necessary to examine the processes of individuals' identification and categorisation of each other as individuals and as individual members of those groups, in order to understand the theoretical possibilities and practical necessities of representation.
It has been asserted that an individual 'always belongs to a particular grouping' with which they share understandings of the world and conventions of acting in and upon it (Gramsci, 1990: 48; see also Fay, 1972: 89-90; Winch, 1990: 44), however, alternative perspectives view individuals' differences as so great that they could not be reduced to groups or classes (Dore, 1973 [1961]: 78; Watkins, 1973 [1953]: 86) and the indeterminacy of their communications as so great that it would be impossible for any person to be certain of any other's meaning, let alone of reaching agreement with them (Derrida, 1985: 174; Saussure, 1990: 55-58).

These alternatives, though, have two flaws that disable them and enable a productive discussion to emerge:
  • first, many people do live in broadly similar circumstances to each other or engage in deeply unifying practices with each other that allow them to experience broad and/or deep solidarity with each other (Baumann, 1996: 190-195; Bourdieu, 1990: 59; Thompson, 1990: 178); and
  • second, it is only through clear communication, dependent upon shared conventions and understandings, that the alternatives' authors are able to be understood in their denial of the very possibility of that communication (Evans, 1997: 231-232).
Individuals, then, may live in communities and cultures - those loose-knit groups of common understanding - but they may move within or even between these groups and within them they may be more or less mobile, nearer to or further from the centre or closer to or farther from other groups and our understandings of those people will necessarily be provisional and partial, but not false or relative (Bourdieu, 1990: 27-36; Geertz, 1973: 5; Wagner, 1981: 36).

People must construct conventions about and expectations of each other as they interact, because if they did not they could not choose some one to work with or some thing to work upon or towards and so they would not be able to perform any social action successfully (Geertz, 1973: 314; Jenkins, 2000: 8; Merleau-Ponty, 2002 [1958]: 512; Schutz, 1976 [1944]: 103; Wagner, 1981: 43-44); this confirms the earlier assertion that some level of reduction and generalisation is inherent within all interaction, whether verbal or practical (4).
As even to initiate interaction requires appropriate action, conventions must exist prior to those interactions, though it is important to note that they would be continually changed and refined as experience accumulated and all past experience would inform the expectations for all future experience (Merleau-Ponty, 2002 [1958]: 196; Schutz, 1967: 79-83).
Moreover, inasmuch as they are shared, social conventions, they are intersubjective, although each person's knowledge of the other's experiences and expectations would be only an approximation (Merleau-Ponty, 2002 [1958]: 415; Schutz, 1967: 32-38; 122-129).

Ideal types - as 'heuristic' devices - must be developed for both individuals and groups, not only because some conventions and expectations exist prior to interaction and cannot be personalised until that point, but also because individuals may have to interact with other individuals acting as groups or as their representatives (Weber, 1971 [1904]: 63); when we talk about ideal types, we are talking about identities.
These ideal types have three forms:
  • a 'Thou-orientation' of "you-and-I" found in interaction (Schutz, 1967: 164);
  • a 'We-relationship' found in cooperation (Schutz, 1967: 164); and
  • a 'They-orientation' of "us-and-them" found in observation (Schutz, 1967: 183).
The conventions and expectations that a person has when they initiate an interaction are grounded in ideal types of the community parsed from observations of its perceived pattern of acting.
It is through that interaction that the They-orientation becomes a Thou-orientation or We-relationship and its anonymous ideal type for "a member of the community" becomes a personalised understanding of "this individual" (Schutz, 1976 [1944]: 103-105).
Ideal types, nevertheless, are necessary tools and will be refined, rather than replaced, by that experience, by whether the other "acted to type" or not and since 'concrete political usages... are made of them by social actors', it is necessary to work with and upon them (Wilson, 2002: 228 - emphasis added; see also Andrade, 2002: 235; Sørensen, 2000: 94).

The influence of group identification and categorisation is dependent upon the context in which they are performed: in periods of calm, people may identify themselves and be categorised implicitly and without consequence, but in periods of crisis their identities will be presented explicitly and may carry grave consequences even in "inconsequential" expressions (Merleau-Ponty, 2002 [1958]: 423).
Shortly after Milošević's campaign of ethnic cleansing was halted and his regime ousted, a Bulgarian working in Kosovo was killed, apparently for no more than giving the time in Serbian (5), which had led to his categorisation as "Serb" or at least "anti-Albanian" and therefore, intrinsically, as a threat.

This demonstrates the potential force of processes of categorisation and identification (Jenkins, 2000: 9):
  • first, Serb nationalists' external categorisation of Albanians strongly influenced their internal definition through the all-too-tangible effects, so that they made common cause - their political parties 'not so much real parties as pluralised elements of a national liberation movement' (Babuna, 2000: 76); and
  • second, that reified internal definition in its turn strongly influenced Albanians' external categorisation of those who could pose a threat to them and led to murders like the one mentioned above where, albeit out of fear, people engaged in misdirected, pre-emptive strikes.
This interplay of categorisation and identification may be seen again in the case cited earlier of the riots in Delhi, where a community of Sikhs emerged only after they had been 'compelled to die as Sikhs' (Das, 1990: 388 - emphasis added).

Having examined the forms of the terms used to denote different forms of group identity and the processes through which they take effect, it is necessary to scrutinise propositions of postcolonialism and feminism regarding presentation and representation of these in research. It is difficult to reconcile the discourse of the artificiality of cultural and national communities with its counter of communities' reality.

At different points, postcolonialists have:
  • criticised 'essentialisations that have the power to turn human beings against each other' (Said, 1993: 276);
  • argued that 'there were - and are - cultures and nations whose... lives, histories and customs have a brute reality' (Said, 1995: 5); and
  • prized culture as a 'way of fighting against extinction and obliteration' (Said, 2003: 159).
A constructive mode of reconciling these parallel (and at some times opposite) discourses would be:
  • to reject both the idea that these ways of being are essentially real and the idea that they are essentially artificial (whether discarded totally or deployed tactically) and
  • to accept instead that these feelings of solidarity between people are an 'actuality', that these representations may be used justifiably but only when they are employed in particular forms in particular circumstances (Said, 1995: 299) and when it is clear that they represent communities of understanding and solidarity, not organic entities that exist and act for themselves.
In this way, it would be possible to talk of an Arab culture (for example, Egyptian, Iraqi or Lebanese Arab culture) or an Islamic culture (for instance, Bosnian Islamic culture), but not the Islamic culture. Equally, it would be possible to talk of Christian, Shi’a or Sunni Iraqi culture or Catholic, Orthodox or Muslim Bosnian culture, but not of the Iraqi or the Bosnian culture.
It is precisely this singular identity that was and is appealed to in both state and popular (Bosnian) nationalist rhetoric in Bosnia, where the essence of Bosnianness is presented as the coexistence of different ethnic and religious cultures (Bugajski, 1996: 643-644), whilst in Serbia, Serbianness is presented in state and popular nationalist rhetoric as an exclusive identity and those wishing to avoid those connotations have felt it necessary to identify themselves as 'Eskimos' rather than "Serbs", "Croats", "Muslims", etc. (Samary, 1995: 5).
This draws out an important point concerning instrumentalist models of (particularly ethnic) identity: instrumentalism holds that people (may) switch identities when it is advantageous (Barth, 1969: 15), but they may not be able or allowed to and if they are, their choices of alternative identities may be severely limited (Gil-White, 1999: 807) - switching may be possible up and down scales (Sarajevan to Catholic to Croat to Yugoslav), but not across them (Catholic to Orthodox, Croat to Serb); so, identities may be practically real.

A deconstructive mode of collapsing the real-artificial dichotomy is recognising the contingent constructions of identities as negative identities - not this, not that - and deploying 'strategic... essentialism' in order to raise consciousness in and for a political struggle (Spivak, 1996: 214; see also Spivak, 1988: 290-291).
Subalternists have discussed how people interacting directly identify themselves and categorise others, then moved past to explore how academics or intellectuals - as Others in the situations they choose to intervene in - categorise the people they study.
Addressing this issue in terms of presentation versus representation - speaking for oneself against speaking for others - subalternists reject the possibility of intellectuals refusing to represent their subjects and instead allowing them to present themselves ('as if such a refusal were possible' (Spivak, 1996: 218)).

Subalternists go further and assert that intellectuals are not translating an actuality but rather producing a 'theoretical fiction' (Spivak, 1996: 213), yet this may undermine any strategic essentialism subsequently engaged in:
  • if the identities constructed and represented are merely a matter of convenience, then the stories they tell are of relevance to no-one, instructive to no-one;
  • if the identities constructed are a convenience, they may be recognised as such and may not serve the intellectuals' political strategies.
Subalternists go further still and argue that subaltern consciousness is 'irreducibly discursive' (Spivak, 1996: 212; see also Spivak, 1988: 290-291) - that is to say, inaccessible in the present - thereby denying not just the possibility of experiencing the past, but of knowing the past as well.
In denying this possibility, subalternists render us powerless in the face of 'bigotry, nationalism and chicanery' (Anthony, 1995: 88; see also Evans, 1997: 184-185); nonetheless, it must be shown not only that this is inconvenient (and indeed immoral), but also that it is incorrect.

There are, then, two points to this critique:
  • first, the alleged inaccessibility of the consciousness of past subalterns; and
  • second, the implied inaccessibility of the consciousness of present subalterns.
The alleged inaccessibility of past subalterns is grounded in certain understandings of the nature of heritage material. Heritage workers' projects are effected through historical and archaeological evidence:
  • the historical evidence produced by people who wrote particular texts for particular audiences;
  • the archaeological evidence, too, produced for particular audiences; and
  • both texts and objects consumed, appropriated and reappropriated by others then and since, each time with their own projects in mind (obviously, they have most recently been appropriated by those who consider themselves to be members of the descendant communities and the heritage workers) (Moreland, 2001: 51-52; 80).
This multivocality in the past and present may appear to confirm the subalternist theory, however, it may also be seen to invalidate it:
  • as artefacts are actively produced and consumed, the voices of those they came into contact with are inscribed upon them and made accessible to heritage workers in the present; and
  • as the many voices are inscribed, the lives of past people and the structures in and through which they acted are inscribed, so not only are the consciousnesses of past subalterns accessible, but also, through their expressions of group identities, communities are (Comaroff and Comaroff, 1992: 42-43; Evans, 1997: 125; Kohl and Fawcett, 1995: 5; Norris, 1993: 18; Trigger, 1995: 265).
This subalternist postmodernism where everything is interpretation, rather than knowledge, has been neatly dealt with elsewhere: if everything is interpretation, that includes the very assertion that it is, in which case it cancels itself out (Eagleton, 1996: 14; see also Evans, 1997: 231-232).

The implied inaccessibility of present subalterns is grounded in particular understandings of the nature of heritage work. Unlike subalternists who focus on colonial history, heritage workers may have access not only to the texts produced by the people they study but also to the people themselves as the heritage workers work with and for them.
Moreover, as the people represented may have access to the heritage workers, so they may contribute to and to some extent control their representations, creating the possibility for intellectuals' representations of others to approximate those others' presentations of themselves (though they will always remain re-presentations) (Greer, Harrison and McIntyre-Tamwoy, 2002: 267-268; Marshall, 2002: 212-215; McDavid, 2002: 307-310; Moser et al, 2002: 222-225; Sen, 2002: 355-360).

Some feminists have tried to erase conceived differences between men and women and others to valourise those differences and the feminine identity represented, but the primary mode of feminist research has involved the exploration of differences among women, drawing out other, simultaneously held identities of race, class, sexuality, age and so on, in order to reveal the constructed nature of the category of "woman" (Hekman, 1999: 7-28; Sørensen, 2000: 7-13).
As the postcolonialists found, though, if 'the feminist standpoint' (Hekman, 1999: 40 - original emphasis) is undermined by this research, so will the movement to end the oppression of "women" be undermined.
The category of "woman", then, is defended and delineated on the grounds that although no woman presents every stereotype of women, every woman is oppressed by their representations and the interdependent conventions, expectations and actions (Hekman, 1999: 139; Sørensen, 2000: 48; 62-70); this coincides with the defensible, constructive postcolonialist mode of representation.

Postcolonialist and feminist standpoints may be brought together at this point and their propositions may be integrated with the findings of the discussions of the forms of identities presented and the nature of their construction. Group identities come into being through individuals' experiences of negotiations of norms, where individuals deploy objects and actions that cite social codes that do operate and do have concrete consequences for whoever deviates (Hekman, 1999: 139; Said, 1995: 230; 299; Sørensen, 2000: 82-94).
Many, sometimes reinforcing, sometimes contradictory codes impinge upon individuals' lives simultaneously, but that they do impinge cannot be questioned - practices such as "cross-dressing" and "telling" are only possible if there is some thing to cross over or to tell from (Jenkins, 1997: 61; Merleau-Ponty, 2002 [1958]: 512; Said, 2003: 161-162; Sørensen, 2000: 129).
In a case that subsumes deconstructive postcolonialism's valid point that what people are not can contribute as much as what they are to the construction of their identity, it has been observed that a Palestinian identity formed partly because Palestinian Israelis came to recognise themselves as not Jewish because they were not treated justly by the Israeli state and then identified with Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip because they were all 'oppressed and handicapped and disadvantaged' (Said, 2003: 50; see also Gilroy, 2002: 321).
In this case, then, it appears that it would be justifiable to talk of Palestinians as a community of shared experience, understanding and solidarity, despite disagreements within the community over how to escape their oppression, but not to talk of Israelis as such, precisely because of disagreements within the society over what they are experiencing, how to understand it and who to have solidarity with.
This suggests that a group of people may be characterised as a community even if they do not have an agreed means of achieving their ends, as long as they do have agreed ends that they wish to achieve; this would make the Palestinian community versus Israeli society dichotomy equivalent to that of the female community against male society noted earlier.

It is important to strike a note of caution:
  • when heritage workers try to represent communities in violently divided societies (to themselves and each other) to foster reconciliation, a focus on the similarities between groups is effective in persuading those who identify - and are categorised - only weakly with the community in question, but is not effective in persuading those who are tied tightly to their community identity; thus,
  • in every representation of communities' pasts, heritage workers must choose between discouraging those on the boundaries of groups from becoming partisan (but reinforcing central members' sense of persecution) and pacifying those at the centre of community movements (but reinforcing peripheral members' sense of division) (Jetten, Spears and Manstead, 1999: 126; Spears, Doosje and Ellemers, 1999: 63-65).
Heritage workers must remember that heritage materials are symbols of community identity at and through which people argue over what has happened in the past and (therefore) what ought to happen in the future (Kaiser, 1995: 99; Rowlands, 2002a: 108; 2002b: 122; Silberman, 1995: 249).
It is only through an constructive engagement with group identities - what they represent, how they manifest themselves and why people align themselves with one or another - that it is possible to challenge stereotypes, undermine discriminatory practices and reunite divided societies.

(1) Some do state that the practice of nationalism by those groups is unnatural (Smith, 1986: 6-18), but this does not salvage the theory of organic nationness - and moreover it contradicts itself, as it proposes that the nations are natural and legitimate, but that their actions as such units are not.

(2) Gellner (1983: 7) defines culture as a 'system of ideas and signs and associations and ways of behaving and communicating'; it is unclear precisely what he wishes to convey when he states that the 'capacity to acquire culture at all must have a genetic precondition' (Gellner, 1997: 2), as insofar as it would be true it would be truistic.

(3) The name of the state of Macedonia is highly contested, some referring to it simply as "Macedonia", others as the state or "Republic of Macedonia", still others calling it the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" (or merely "FYROM") and some acknowledging it only as the "Republic of Skopje" - each term is at best imprecise and at worst inflammatory.

(4) Again, this is reductive, as all interaction is practical; its purpose is merely to distinguish between primarily language-based reductions, (such as those of a continuum of interactions to "verbal" and "practical" and of the other conventions deployed in this work) and primarily action-based ones.

(5) Serbian is the term used to refer to the form of Serbo-Croat spoken primarily in the Union of Serbia and Montenegro, as is Croat for the form spoken primarily in Croatia, since the dissolution of Yugoslavia.


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