Critical Philosophy of Race

Kimberly Ann Harris

Department of Philosophy
Marquette University

September 16, 2021

Recent debates on race and the #BlackLivesMatter movement have pushed scholars within the social sciences and humanities to reconsider the contested category of race. Such debates would seem to demand for a more nuanced analysis of current forms of racialization and the experiences of racism. These developments have not only shaped how race/racism circulates in the social world, but also gained traction among philosophers working on questions concerning race and adjacent matters. ‘Critical Philosophy of Race’ is such an emergent subfield of philosophy, considering the theorization, epistemologies, and new directions within philosophy of what race constitutes and often unsettles stable terrains such as the genre of classics/canons. Whereas ‘Critical Race Theory’ and ‘Philosophy of Race’ are more familiar since they are the established subfields that address race, ‘Critical Philosophy of Race’ is perhaps a curious addition. While they are not equivalent, ‘Critical Philosophy of Race’ draws inspiration from ‘Critical Race Theory.’ In comparison it is less established, and much work remains to be done to formalize it. However, there is a useful starting point for understanding its general orientation. To my mind no one has yet improved upon the account the philosopher Charles W. Mills offers. He defines it as being “distinguished from traditional—uncritical—philosophy of race in being multiply ‘critical’” (2016, 709). Because the phenomenon existed long before it had a name, its name is a matter of historical convenience. Critical philosophers of race, in addition to Mills such as Linda Martín Alcoff and Robert Bernasconi, condemn various forms of racism in their work. Moreover, they criticize naturalistic understandings of race. At the same time, they rebuke the dismissal of race for considering our modern condition. But, in my view, there is also an important political emphasis.

A critical approach to the philosophy of race has a research program that aligns with contemporary social movements. That is to say that the framework of said program identifies with organized efforts to achieve particular social and political goals. The questions it asks are informed by that identification. An important example is Christopher J. Lebron’s presentation of the history of the aims and activities that gave way to the movement for black lives. In the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the death of Trayvon Martin in 2013, the #BlackLivesMatter has become a powerful campaign demanding redress for the brutal and unjustified treatment of black people by law enforcement in the United States. Lebron clarifies what “Black Lives Matter” means in light of seemingly endless contemporary instances of anti-black law enforcement. He distinguishes the problem signaled by the social media hashtag and how we ought to address the problem. If one struggles insisting that “Black Lives Matter” figure among the most significant, then a critical philosophy of race would, among other aims, elucidate its meaning. 

Mills deems “mainstream” ‘Philosophy of Race’ naive because its practitioners do not explicitly condemn forms of racism. For him, the primary agenda of ‘Philosophy of Race’ is to question both the logical coherence of race and its ontological status. The term “race” merely signifies the division of humanity into groups using some criteria. The debate concerning the ontology of race has taken up a lot of the intellectual space. Some do not think race exists, racial skepticism, which has led to racial eliminativism, and some think it exists, racial realism, which has led to racial constructionism. Racial eliminativists, such as Kwame Anthony Appiah and Naomi Zack, argue that the race concept is incoherent, does not point to anything real in the world, lacks a biological foundation, and therefore should be abandoned. Racial realists insist that lived experience—such as that of racism—make it both real and significant. Paul C. Taylor and Lucius Outlaw are racial realists. The problem of racism has not received nearly enough attention. There is a great urgency to better understand it. For instance, a quick google search shows that racialism, the view that humans can be sorted into a small number of races based on heritable characteristics, is erroneously used interchangeably with racism. 

An inordinate amount of attention has been allocated to individual(ized) racism when racism is taken up at all. In contrast, systemic racism has been given very little attention despite the public awareness of it. Even US President Joe Biden mentioned “the sting of systemic racism” in his inauguration speech. In general, there is still a great need to clarify systemic racism. It is often conflated with institutional racism. It seems to be the case that systemic racism is taken to mean that racism broadly affects society. Systemic racism points to a hierarchy that privileges one race above another. It arises when that hierarchy and those privileges are infused into the systems that govern life. The existence of systemic racism, its consequences for the structures of the societies in which philosophy is done, and by whom has implications for philosophers working in all areas. 

Mills claims that criticizing naturalistic understandings of race is characteristic of ‘Critical Philosophy of Race.’ Race has only come to be recognized as a proper philosophical concern in very recent times and many still simply refuse to acknowledge it. But the recognition of race as a philosophical concern has all to do with Appiah’s criticism of W. E. B. Du Bois’s account of race in “The Conservation of Races” (2000). Du Bois criticized what he referred to as the scientific conception of race. The short address generated an incredible amount of secondary literature mainly attempting to defend Du Bois from Appiah’s criticism. The debate about how to interpret the definition of race in the address had the effect of establishing the philosophy of race as a subfield and giving the subfield cohesion. Du Bois is a very important figure in ‘Critical Philosophy of Race’ not only because he made race a matter of philosophical inquiry and developed a fascinating and dynamic theory of race as Chike Jeffers has pointed out but also in doing so managed to make some claims about the nature of philosophy itself, as Kimberly Ann Harris (2019) argues. The relation here is important because it dispels this notion that questions surrounding race belong to a narrow subfield. 

Mills points out that critical philosophers of race think that race is essential for understanding our modern condition. It is the indictment of the discipline that makes Mills’ account so appealing. ‘Critical Philosophy of Race’ is specifically concerned with the discipline of philosophy and its history.

There are two noticeable failures in philosophy. The first is the ongoing failure for more philosophers to interrogate the racist ideas of canonical philosophers. This is why the reading list below is in large part historical. Because these ideas have been destructive, there is a need for this interrogation. These ideas do not just belong to the past as they influence thinking today. For example, Lucy Allais, Bernasconi and Jameliah Shorter-Bourhanou have called attention to Immanuel Kant’s racism. Many philosophers consider themselves Kantian ethicists and yet there has been no major treatment of the evil of slavery no less Kant’s part in its justification. This indicates that there is a serious disconnection. Whether the dispute about labeling Kant a racist or not can be solved is a shortsighted goal. The acknowledgement that Kant had an idea of race and it has a relationship to his philosophy is more important. Bernasconi, Andreja Novakovic,Alison Stone and Rocío Zambrana, have investigated the complexities around G. W. F. Hegel’s ideas on race, its connection to slavery and its political aftermath, and support of colonialism. As perhaps the most systematic thinker, there is much more work needed to show how these problematic ideas inform Hegel’s most recognizable ideas such as the dialectic itself. 

The second failure concerns how philosophers have decided to treat race, which is worth emphasizing. The narrow treatment of race as either a question of moral status, its relationship to justice, or ability to evaluate other things has limited the approaches to it. Recently a lot of skepticism has developed around the possibility of any stable race concept and for this reason, some think it ought to be disentangled from the problem of racism altogether. Racial skeptics want to make them separate inquiries. Michael O. Hardimon argues for what he calls “deflationary realism.” The narrow approaches have major blind spots and the desire to minimize race alone ignores the idea that it is constitutive with other identity categories. The idea that race intersects with other categories––a key claim among Black Feminist philosophers, like Kristie Dotson––has not registered at all in these debates. There are simply tendencies in the ‘Philosophy of Race’ that discourage complex and critical analyses of race altogether. 

Kimberly Ann Harris is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Marquette University. She is also an Associate Editor of the Critical Philosophy of Race Journal.

Reading List/Works Cited

Appiah, Anthony. “The Uncompleted Argument: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Illusion of Race.” Critical Inquiry 12, no. 1 (1985): 21-37. 

Appiah, Kwame Anthony and Amy Gutman. Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. 

Alcoff, Linda Martín. Visible Identities: Race, Gender and the Self. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 

Allais, Lucy. “Kant’s Racism.” Philosophical Papers 45, no. 1-2 (2016), 1-36.

Bernasconi, Robert. “Hegel’s Racism: A Reply to McCarney.” Radical Philosophy 119 (2003): 35-37. 

Bernasconi, Robert. “Kant as an Unfamiliar Source of Racism.” In Philosophers on Race: Critical Essays, edited by Julie K. Ward and Tommy L Lott, 145-166. New York: Blackwell, 2002.  

Bernasconi, Robert, ed. Race & Racism in Continental Philosophy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. 

Bernasconi, Robert. “Will the real Kant please stand up: The challenge of Enlightenment racism to the study of the history of philosophy,” Radical Philosophy 117 (2003): 13-22.

Bernasconi, Robert. “With What Must the Philosophy of World History Begin? On the Racial Basis of Hegel’s Eurocentrism,” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 22, no. 2 (2000): 171-201.

Bernier, François. “A New Division of Earth.” In The Idea of Race, edited by Robert Bernasconi and Tommy L. Lott, 1-4. New York: Hackett, 2000.

Blumenbach, J. F.  “On the Natural Variety of Mankind.” In The Idea of Race, edited by Robert Bernasconi and Tommy L. Lott, 27-37. New York: Hackett, 2000. 

Cooper, Anna Julia. A Voice from the South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. 

Cugoano, Quobna Ottobah. Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery. New York: Penguin, 1999. 

Darwin, Charles. “On the Races of Man.” In The Idea of Race, edited by Robert Bernasconi and Tommy L. Lott, 54-78. New York: Hackett, 2000. 

Dotson, Kristie. “Word to the Wise: Notes on a Black Feminist Metaphilosophy of Race.” Philosophy Compass 11, no. 2 (2016): 69-74. 

Du Bois, W. E. B. Dusk of Dawn. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Du Bois, W. E. B. “The Conservation of Races.” In The Idea of Race, edited by Robert Bernasconi and Tommy L. Lott, 108-117. New York: Hackett, 2000. 

Fanon, Frantz. Toward the African Revolution. Translated by Haakon Chevalier. New York: Grove Press, 1994.  

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skins, White Masks. Translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press, 2008. 

Hardimon, Michael O. Rethinking Race: The Case for Deflationary Realism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017. 

Harris, Kimberly Ann. “W. E. B. Du Bois’s ‘Conservation of Races:’ A Metaphilosophical Text.” Metaphilosophy 50, no. 5 (2019): 670-687.

Hegel, G. W. F. “Anthropology.” In The Idea of Race, edited by Robert Bernasconi and Tommy L. Lott, 38-44. New York: Hackett, 2000. 

Herder, J. G. “Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Humankind.” In The Idea of Race, edited by Robert Bernasconi and Tommy L. Lott, 23-26. New York: Hackett, 2000.

Huxley, Thomas H. “On the Geographical Distribution of the Chief Modifications of Mankind,” The Journal of the Ethnological Society of London 2, no. 4 (1870): 404-412. 

Jeffers, Chike. “The Cultural Theory of Race: Yet Another Look at Du Bois’s ‘The Conservation of Races’,” Ethics 123, no. 3 (2013): 403-426. 

Kant, Immanuel. “Of the Different Human Races.” In The Idea of Race, edited by Robert Bernasconi and Tommy L. Lott, 8-22. New York: Hackett, 2000. 

Lebron, Christopher J. The Making of Black lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 

Mills, Charles W. “Critical Philosophy of Race.” In Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Methodology, edited by Herman Cappelen, Tamar Szabó Gendler, and John Hawthorne, 709-732. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 

Montague, Ashley. “The Concept of Race in the Human Species in the Light of Genetics.” In The Idea of Race, edited by Robert Bernasconi and Tommy L. Lott, 100-107. New York: Hackett, 2000. 

Novakovic, Andreja. “Hegel’s Real Habits.” European Journal of Philosophy 27, no. 4 (2019): 882-897. 

Outlaw, Lucius T. On Race and Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 1996. 

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate. Translated by George J. Becker. New York: Schocken, 1995. 

Sikka, Sonia. Herder on Humanity and Cultural Difference. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 

Stone, Alison. “Hegel and Colonialism.” Hegel Bulletin 41, no. 2 (2020): 247-270. 

Taylor, Paul C. Race: A Philosophical Introduction. Second Edition. New York: Polity, 2013. 

Ratzel, Friedrich. “Lebensraum: A Biogeographical Study.” Translated by Tul’si Bhambry. Journal of Historical Geography 61 (2018): 59-80. 

Zack, Naomi. Philosophy of Science and Race. New York: Routledge, 2002. 

Zambrana, Rocío. “Hegel, History, and Race.” In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Race, edited by Naomi Zack, 251-260. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 

Waste Fantasies: Challenging Prevailing Notions of Waste, or How to Reclaim Political Land

Kathrin Eitel

Institute for Cultural Anthropology & European Ethnology
Goethe-University Frankfurt a/M, Germany

July 15, 2021

Waste is very much persistent and omnipresent in our contemporary world. It’s depicted in pictures on social media campaigns, it is part of our daily lives, it lays around, it permeates and is eventually removed or liquefies and decays into indefinable debris. Its persistent (sometimes more visible, sometimes very invisible) omnipresence has long attracted the interest of anthropological researchers. Prominently, the anthropologist Mary Douglas (2001 [1966]) has attested ‘dirt’ to be a matter out of place, pointing to its cultural relationality in space, where it is enacted in relation to the profane and the sacred. Building on Douglas, Michael Thompson (1979) has in his work, Rubbish Theory, examined garbage as something that changes its various aggregate states of value. Others such as Zsuzsa Gille (2007) further have described ‘waste regimes’ that are social institutions and conventions, classifying what waste is, how it is perceived as well as how it is regulated, produced, and politicized. Drawing on the global flows through which waste passes, and the multiple forms of recycling economies that handle and practice waste differently, contemporary waste/discard studies have described the ambiguity of waste. According to Gille (2013), it is difficult to determine the value of waste from an abstract level as it is always a social relationship. 

In this respect, anthropological insights have revealed multiple waste worlds, all of which contextualize daily practice, notions of a ‘green future,’ and climate-sensitive policies as being relational but still distinctive in their local embeddedness. This is visible for instance in works on practices of recyclable waste handling that contest the dominant notion of waste as being something dirty and to be discarded, unveiling waste as being of value (see Alexander & Reno 2012, Fredericks 2018, Miller 2018). Waste exhibits transversal social relationships across multiple temporalities, such as colonial infrastructure projects like wastewater channels that influence and shape understandings of dirt and purity and with that the appearance of a city (Jensen 2017).

However, waste is also classified as a change agent of things and situations when it turns out to be more than waste, such as  on “wastelands” (see Chalfin 2017). In such places, waste serves as a breeding ground for novel ecosystems. This side of the coin paints a different picture of waste – namely, that it is not ‘merely’ describable as a cultural phenomenon, but that it sits in contexts that point to its multiple relational ontologies that also evoke life and are enacted through everyday practices that embrace the material. In this way, it is intertwined with humans and non-humans alike, being entangled in their specific situatedness, rendering waste sometimes not as dirty at all (see Hoag, Bertoni, & Bubandt 2018; Zahara and Hird 2015). For example, Sven Bergmann (2021) has described how microplastic is entangled with the emergence of new microcosms and Jacob Doherty (2019) has elaborated on how marabou storks ‘help’ mitigating emissions of methane gases as they eat organic matter in open dumps. 

In combination with STS approaches that critically examine the way knowledge is produced and how it is mediated, travelling along various trajectories to dispersed places, the interdisciplinary field of waste and discard studies has also turned toward issues of sovereignty and management. As these studies pursue questions of interpretive authority over classifications and categories of waste, dirt, and cleanliness, they also reveal hegemonic knowledge (infra-)structures that ascribe waste with certain properties. Alexander and O’Hare (2020) aptly put it: there is no single epistemology of waste. Moreover, certain technologies of (un-)knowing permeate the understanding of what waste is, muting at once other ways of knowing and even sometimes depoliticizing situations in which waste matters. In this regard, waste, as the symbol of the Anthropocene, is a fruitful research topic to understand how and in what extent knowledge over things like waste reduction, recycling procedures, and disposal strategies, is implemented in the Global South, bringing connotations and narratives bound to these management practices along with them. More than sorting waste into relationships of profane and sacred, these studies pivot around the material politics of waste.

Transnational waste reduction programs that serve as an international template for addressing waste situations at the local level often do a certain kind of place-making at the site of their implementation. Inscribed in these are heteronormative imaginaries of dirt and purity, clean and green, nature and society/culture that are coined by dominant narratives of capitalist economies that promise to bring wealth to the far corners of the world and culture. Ultimately, these imaginaries are “sovereign fantasies of waste,” following Mel Y. Chen’s (2007: 367) notion. Chen defines this sovereign fantasy as “the national or imperial project of absolute rule and authority.” I adopt the term to identify these imaginaries as a single, but prevailing, ontonormative understanding of waste that seeks to detach waste from its cultural and social embeddedness and ascribe to it seemingly ‘universal’ properties. As such, fantasies of waste as a materialized imagination assumes the premise of having ultimate insight over the material, while proclaiming the only relevant interpretive authority over how waste is perceived and should ultimately be treated (as passive material with no life-sustaining aspects) along certain ideas of waste disposal strategies. 

The sharp differences between the ‘realpolitik’ often pushed by engineers and technicians and what ethnographic studies tell us can seem insurmountable, as prevailing waste fantasies are deeply grounded in histories, narratives, and imaginaries of the future (see Nguyen 2019). Ruling over waste and the performance of authority in this matter is a long-cherished legacy, that gleam in colonial pasts, grown in the consciousness of being in the ascendancy over others. As such, it has laid ground to infrastructures of ruling that impacts the way we perceive our planet (as exclusively endangered by waste and only exemptible with one technical solution). The promises that meander through time and space, whispering stories about modernity are tied to technical progress, to the exploitation of land and labor, and the invention of new materials such as plastic or aluminum that design also future perceptions of the world, having direct impacts on decisions and actions in the now (see Sheller 2014). In this regard, the geographer Max Liboiron (2021) asserts that ‘pollution is colonialism’ (and plastics one pollutant of it). Waste and pollution are an expression of power hierarchies that often build on colonial pasts and on interventions in the present. Colonialism can be understood as “a set of contemporary and evolving land relations that can be maintained by good intentions and even good deeds” (Liboiron 2021: 6). In this sense, pollution is “an enactment of ongoing colonial relations to Land.” It is, according to Liboiron, the violence of these relations (ibid.: 6). And this violence results from invasion tactics into the country that are no longer carried out by white men arriving on ships in pith helmets, but in the form of transnational waste regulations and programs. As a result, local practices of wasting and cultural connotations of waste are silenced. Local populations are thus denied their right to pollute, which in turn diminishes their right to self-determination and sovereignty.

Prevailing fantasies of waste in this regard intervene in these lands as my ethnographic study in Cambodia has also unveiled. In Cambodia, where I have done ethnographic research between 2017 and 2019, the voices of the people who work with recyclable waste, are visibly excluded when it comes to political deliberations around waste regulation. Instead, waste scientists and engineers who are attested to know how to technologically fix the ‘broken’ and ‘dysfunctional’ waste/recycling system exercise interpretive supremacy at the detriment of local perspectives. This is visible in multiple reports on waste management in Cambodia, where the existence of the recycling economy is rendered as “informal” and the perspective of engineers emphasized (see RGC 2017). This is also reflected in the composition of so-called expert groups advising the Cambodian Ministry of Environment, which consist of these same engineers and transnational organizations working on broader climate change issues within a regulatory framework such as the SDGs. Further entrepreneurial actors are addressed to step into this economic yet idled field to bring solutions forward (see GBN Program 2019). This has become especially relevant these days as the Cambodian government has launched its National Circular Economy Strategy and Action Plan aiming to formalize the recycling economy in the country (Kunmakara 2021).

Ultimately, these reports and programs are not about the altruistic intention to ‘help’ Cambodia get on the ‘right’ track, but, following Liboiron, these programs and deliberations are a form of invading in a country and its land. In my research, the issue is about gaining access to political land, i.e., domination over (national) politics, and thus a domination over interpretive sovereignty. It even goes further as it is also an invasion into ‘political Land’ (with a capital L) that goes beyond the definition of the political as something practiced among politicians and political organs (for the definition of Land, see Liboiron 2021: 6fn). In this way, these programs also infiltrate the political in the form of cultural and spiritual ways of practicing and doing politics, for example, in the private sphere. 

This points us to an understanding of colonialism that is both contemporary and originates in the past – and ultimately influences the future and impacts the practices of policy making until today. The invasion of geographic land was primarily of interest to colonial settlers such as the French (1983-1953), but also to colonialists who probably did not see themselves as such (such as, in part, the Vietnamese or U.S. troops during the American War / Vietnam War) in Cambodia. These different control regimes that permeated Cambodia at different times by differently oriented actors simultaneously laid the foundation for various infrastructures such as global trade routes, shipping routes or the Silk Road through which plastic and aluminum products could easily enter the country after the rapid marketization in the 1980s – also because plastic and aluminum products were already connoted with wealth; a notion that also stems from the colonial past. Suddenly, the country was drowning in plastic waste, and there was no time to come up with local disposal strategies (see Eitel 2019). Infrastructures of policymaking, another legacy of the invaders, became apparent in tackling the garbage problem. Cambodians had been used to sitting down at consultation tables to discuss the country’s problems and possible futures with foreign actors. These conditions served as the  ground on which knowledge, sovereignty, and notions of how to ‘best’ deal with problems could continue to develop, a basis on which knowledge, and thus sovereign fantasies about waste could migrate. Along these ‘old’ pathways and trajectories of dispossession, the ‘management’ of Cambodia’s waste problem stands both in the legacy of the past and gains legitimacy in the present: namely, in the context of a supposedly global understanding that the world should be rid of waste to save the climate and our nature, asserting the separation of nature and culture (see Eitel 2021). In this way, political action both perpetuates colonial (infra)structures and creates new starting points for them. All of this feeds back into the idea of a future without garbage that appears as the result of seemingly neutral discourses.

An anthropology of waste must challenge prevailing fantasies of waste and their implicated notions. In this way, it seems a good starting point to unveil the constituting and circulating mechanisms of such waste fantasies, and the ways they and their underlying notions of dirt and purity for example are practiced, negotiated and contested. This allows us to trace their feeding back into cultural normative orders that are informed, and shaped by waste fantasies relying on waste futures. Reclamation of political Land implies, following anthropologist Kathleen Miller (2018: 33) who understands waste reclamation as an “act of remaking the world,” the attempt to adopt notions of waste futures and to make visible different tropes. As anthropologists, we would do well to describe these (waste) fantasies, their legacies, and their attempt to flatten and disregard other notions evoked in cultural frameworks and sociomaterial constellations that often remain out of sight. We can use the potential of this endeavor to understand domination as transversal and situated practices rooted in heritage, legacies, and self-understandings in different time periods for new directions in (anthropological) waste research. 

Ultimately, however, we also wrestle with other scholars on the political terrain of waste fantasies, encountering them in debates about the meaning and use of a sociocultural material that is at once wholly our own and not at all. Figuring out the various entanglements that make waste fantasies emerge in a more or less predominant form then means reinforcing those trajectories and strands that are the relational cross-connections between these traveling fantasies, becoming visible for instance in urban struggles. We should all be aware that these fantasies become the future of all of us – and that, moreover, stem from very clearly sketched visions of the future.

Works cited

Alexander, Catherine & O’Hare, Patrick (2020). “Waste and Its Disguises: Technologies of (Un)Knowing.” Ethnos, 1–25. Link

Bergmann, Sven (2021). “Dawn of the Plastisphere: An Experiment with Unpredictable Effects.” In Trisia Farrelly, Sy Taffel, and Ian C. Shaw (Eds). Plastic Legacies. Pollution, Persistence, and Politics. Edmonton, Alberta: AU Press, 79–101. Link

Chalfin, Brenda (2017). “‘Wastelandia’: Infrastructure and the Commonwealth of Waste in Urban Ghana.” Ethnos 82 (4), 648–671. Link

Chen, Mel Y. (2007). “Racialized Toxins and Sovereign Fantasies.” Discourse 29(2&3), 367–383. Link

Doherty, Jacob (2019). “Filthy Flourishing: Para-Sites, Animal Infrastructure, and the Waste Frontier in Kampala.” Current Anthropology 60 (20), 321-332. Link

Douglas, Mary (2001 [1966]). Purity and Danger. An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge. Link

Eitel, Kathrin (2019). A brief history of Cambodia’s plastic crisis – Southeast Asia Globe. Link

————– (2021). “Oozing Matters. Infracycles of ‘Waste Management’ and Emergent Naturecultures in Phnom Penh.” East Asian Science, Technology and Society 15 (1). Link

Fredericks, Rosalind (2018). Garbage citizenship. Vital infrastructures of labor in Dakar, Senegal. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. Link

GBN Program (2019). Partnership Ready Cambodia: Waste management. Link

Gille, Zsuzsa (2007). From the Cult of Waste to the Trash Heap of History. The Politics of Waste in Socialist and Postsocialist Hungary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Link

————– (2013). “From Risk to Waste: Global Food Waste Regimes.” The Sociological Review 60(2), 27–46. Link

Hoag, Colin, Bertoni, Filippo, & Bubandt, Nils (2018). “Wasteland Ecologies: Undomestication and Multispecies Gains on an Anthropocene Dumping Ground.” Journal of Ethnobiology 38(1), 88–104. Link

Jensen, Casper Bruun (2017). “Pipe Dreams. Sewage Infrastructure and Activity Trails in Phnom Penh.” Ethnos 82(4), 627–647. Link

Kunmakara, May (2021). “Circular economy strategy, plan launched.” The Phnom Penh Post. June 28, 2021. Link

Liboiron, Max (2021). Pollution is colonialism. Durham: Duke University Press. Link

Miller, Kathleen M. (2018). Reclaiming the Discarded. Life and Labor on Rio’s Garbage Dump. Durham: Duke University Press. Link

Nguyen, Minh T. N. (2019). Waste and Wealth. An Ethnography of Labor, Value, and Morality in a Vietnamese Recycling Economy. New York, NY.: Oxford University Press. Link

RGC (2017). National Environment Strategy and Action Plan 2016-2023. Link

Sheller, Mimi (2014). Aluminum Dreams. The Making of Light Modernity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. Link

Thompson, Michael (1979). Rubbish Theory. The Creation and Destruction of Value. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Link

Zahara, Alexander R. D. & Hird, Myra J. (2015). “Raven, Dog, Human: Inhuman Colonialism and Unsettling Cosmologies.” Environmental Humanities 7(1), 169–190. Link

Data, Platforms, and Bias

Johannes Lenhard & Alexandrine Royer

Max Planck – Cambridge Centre for Ethics, Economy and Social Change
Cambridge University

April 15, 2021

As digital capitalism, and with it data, algorithms, artificial intelligence (AI), and platforms are becoming increasingly dominant, the anthropological interest in the topic is slowly growing, too. So far, most of the (critical) engagement with the digital economy around us that is driven on and by data has come out of journalism, media studies, and sociology; much of the debate has centred around what some call the ‘ethics’ of AI and data, or digital capitalist practices more generally, mostly with a view on big tech companies. 

In this reading list, we focus on contributions which are either anthropological in nature or are based on ethnography. Ethnography is so far an underused and underestimated part of the toolkit to open up what Frank Pasquale calls the ‘black box society’ produced by data and AI. As Kathleen Richardson comments, ‘to make artificial intelligence is to reproduce what is essentially us, an odd form of self-reproduction.’ How can anthropology and its methods help us to better comprehend how platforms, the data economy or more specific outgrowths of it such as new types of (gig) labour work? What kind of critiques can anthropology help formulate and productively bring forward? 

The world has shifted even further online with the breakout of COVID-19, and the accompanying lockdowns, constant Zoom meetings, and working from home. Much of our connectivity and our social relations  are being enabled, mediated, and managed (some would say surveilled) by platforms and data companies. While some aspects of life and work might return IRL (in real life), much of it will remain online and data-fied. 

How did we even get here? 

The history of (the social sciences of) data and platforms

Data is not exactly a new phenomenon; certainly not in its form as a possible ‘weapon of oppression’. In his How we Became our Data, Colin Koopman goes back to the 1900s to explain how, with the advent of the birth certificate, people became systematically defined by specifically formatted kinds and types of data for the first time. In the decades that followed, data has been manipulated, biased, and used to marginalise people, such as in racial redlining practices (among city planners in the US that Koopman describes; see our review). What has changed over the last decades with the digitalisation of increasing parts of our everyday lives since the advent of the (personal) computer and the (connected) internet is the scope of data’s influence. 

Platforms include the advertising-driven models of Facebook or Google, but also the cloud platforms, most of our data is stored on and what Nick Srnicek calls ‘lean’ platforms (including Uber’s taxi app or AirBnB’s apartment-renting solution). These platforms are organising much of the world around us and are usually powered by data – they collect data from us which can either turn into (advertising) revenue directly or convert into various other currencies (such as targeted, personalised sales on Amazon). Data itself has become a new form of capital, according to Ivana Bartoletti, that runs through and is organised by platforms. Platforms and their algorithms have the capacity to turn our everyday life – from online purchases to digital newspaper consumption and financial transactions – into fine-grained data profiles. These in turn are commodifiable, sellable, and usable in various forms of capitalist economising. 

Additional readings (the basics):

Boellstorff, Tom, and Bill Maurer. (2015). Data — Now Bigger and Better! Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
A short volume of essays relating contemporary discussions of big data to classical works and concepts within anthropological theory such as Mauss, Malinowski, Levi-Strauss, and others.

Coeckelbergh, Mark. (2020). AI Ethics. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. What even is AI? What might an ‘ethics’ of it look like? The best pocket-sized critical introduction to the topic and very helpful to connect the dots.

Forsythe, Diane E. (2001). Studying Those Who Study Us: An Anthropologist in the World of Artificial Intelligence. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
A collection of pioneering essays on artificial intelligence from an anthropological perspective with a particular focus on the roles of gender and power in computer engineering. 

Guyer, Jane. (2016). Legacies, Logics, Logistics: Essays in the Anthropology of the Platform Economy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
A historical and comparative analysis of the composite architecture of West African and Western economies; Guyer offers a fresh conceptualisation of the platform economy as structure entangled in local experiences, logics and logistics.

Srnicek, Nick. (2016). Platform Capitalism. Cambridge, UK: Polity.
The easiest and most critical primer on different kinds of platforms – from advertising-driven ones to cloud-based ones and lean platforms; a must read.

Data as knowledge and control 

In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff paints a picture of a world not only organised by digital platforms collecting and ordering data from their customers but also controlled by them. Zuboff’s account (while at times jargon-laden) delivers rich examples and strong case studies of how data and platforms turn into governmentality-apparati, from facial recognition software to social ranking scores. Jathan Sadowski’s recent volume Too Smart extends this line of analysis to wearables, smart cities and smart homes. From data extraction to data-fueled control, he warns of simply buying into the convenience that new technologies promise.

Anthropologists have applied this lens to scrutinise what work looks like in the digital platform economy. Three recent ethnographies illuminate different kinds of contemporary blue- and white-collar work mediated by data and platforms (read our combined review of them here). Ilana Gershon’s Down and Out in the New Economy focuses on white-collar, office workers while Alexandrea Ravenelle’s Hustle and Gig and Alex Rosenblat’s Uberland are both concerned with the more precarious gig workers. Gershon goes into detail on how college-educated young professionals struggle to find work and fit into a societal narrative of ‘the self as business.’ How do you turn yourself into the right kind of entrepreneur using LinkedIn and other (linguistic) genres of self-branding? Rosenblat focuses uniquely on the ride-hailing service Uber in the US, and Ravenelle studied the gig-workers at four platforms, including TaskRabbit and the already defunct Kitchensurfing. They extend the same observations to low-paid, on-demand work, but the promise of the self as entrepreneur is only one half of the narrative. The other half reveals a reality of data-enabled control which the platforms exert over both workers and work itself. 

What anthropology contributes with these and other detailed ethnographies is the view from the workers’ own perspective: how are they struggling (or enjoying the promised flexibility and freedom)? How do the platform’s practices, such as regulating surge pricing, affect them in their everyday work? What might their work-arounds look like? More generally, how are data, platforms, and algorithms embedded in sociality?

Algorithmic bias 

Diane Forsythe observed already in her 1993 article how data engineers, who were predominantly white, middle-class, Euro-American men, designed systems that reflected their interests and perspectives. Forsythe was among the first to leave an anthropological imprint on the study of human-machine interactions, noting the gendered biases in the coded structure of AI. Despite this early contribution, everyone from media scholars to mathematicians have taken the lead in unravelling the consequences of our growing reliance on big data models and automated decision-making. As the input data within AI systems are tainted with society’s racial and gendered biases, algorithmic outputs will automate the status quo.

In Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil carefully uncovers how big data and algorithms can lead to decisions that place minorities, people of colour, and low-income individuals at a disadvantage, thereby reinforcing discrimination and amplifying pre-existing inequalities in the distribution of socioeconomic resources. Algorithms responsible for high-stakes decisions in insurance, education, and policing operate in ways that are opaque, unregulated, and largely unbeknownst to the public, hence challenging to contest. Following O’Neil, scholars have expanded their attention towards the relationship between algorithmic data, societal structures, and social justice efforts. In Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Umoja Noble details how search engines are biased in their presentation and engagement with racialized groups, especially women of colour, due to their quasi-monopoly and the corporate interests driving results pages. 

The systems that proliferate bias also have biases baked within their very design and coding. Joy Buolamwini documented the inability of AI facial recognition systems relying on computer vision to correctly identify people of colour, particularly women of colour, an issue that tracess back to the history of colour film and its optimisation for lighter skin tones. Tech developers and Euro-American societies writ-large privilege whiteness and heteropatriarchal norms in the construction of intelligent machines. In their recent article, ‘The Whiteness of AI,’ Stephen Cave and Kante Dihal underscore how AI technologies are typically portrayed as feminized and ‘White’ or Anglo-Saxon in appearance and speech. 

Biases within AI systems reveal the wider systemic issues and historical disenfranchisement behind technological design and implementation. In Race After Technology, Ruha Benjamin refers to coded inequality as the ‘New Jim Code,’ given the range of discriminatory designs that ‘explicitly work to amplify hierarchies’ and ‘a number that aim to fix racial bias but end up doing the opposite.’ Anthropologists, in tracing the human imprint behind algorithmic systems from data gathering to deployment, can help uncover the assumptions and biases that undergird such systems and reveal how such algorithmic biases can be manifested beyond the North American and European context. 

Public Anthropology

Andrea E. Pia

Department of Anthropology
London School of Economics and Political Science

April 1, 2021

What and how does anthropology contribute to public life? Do anthropologists have a responsibility to contribute to those communities beyond the academy that make the study of anthropology possible? What happens when ethnography goes public? And who is the audience of ethnography? These are some of the questions that animate a new teaching module, entitled Public Anthropology, I recently set up at LSE Anthropology. This new module emerged in response to students’ demands to diversify aspects of the curriculum across the Department. 

Anthropology is unique among the social sciences for being perpetually stuck in “cyclical crises of legitimacy” (2020), as Ryan Cecil Jobson has recently put it. Typically caught between the unjustified stigmatization of applied anthropological work – “the rock” – and recruitment bottlenecks that reproduce class and racial disparities (and reward cronyism) – “the hard place” – debates about the social value of anthropology have been rocking the anthropology-boat for quite some time now, though with negligible results. Often, these debates are fought between opposing moral and political camps, with the result that uncompromising views are further entrenched and meaningful change within existing power centres is deferred into the future. 

Public anthropology can be conceptualised as an increasingly coordinated movement originating from subject positions and perspectives that rest at an angle to established institutional and discursive spaces in anthropology. As an intellectual project, it expresses impatience with the field’s continuous inability to confront and repair the social inequalities and the systemic exploitation the discipline had once been, and still largely is, complicit in. As a social movement, it envisions new ways of practising anthropology, ways that fundamentally challenge the pigeonholing of the discipline in ready-made institutional confines: what counts as anthropology, how is it produced, and what, and whom, is it for?

The reading list I propose below is an extract from my Public Anthropology syllabus. It puts forward an inescapably personal take on this emerging field and correlated disciplinary practices, while highlighting areas of theoretical innovation, political maturity, and epistemological audaciousness. Thus, this reading list explores the relationship between anthropological theory, the power fields in which it is inserted and its diverse publics. In compiling these resources, I have tried to give precedence to material in open-access format. The fact that I have largely failed to do so for each single entry is indicative of how much work still needs to be done, within and outside academia, to secure universal access to the research outputs of the social sciences (I will return to this point in a moment).

What anthropology is for? 

Public Anthropologists are reconsidering the public relevance of anthropological knowledge, asking what happens to ethnographic insights and findings once they are made available to audiences beyond peers and students. Robert Borosfki is perhaps the one single anthropologist who has laboured the most in this regard, publishing extensively on the topic and raising awareness about the limited reach that anthropological scholarship has towards non-specialist publics. His open-access bookAn Anthropology of Anthropology (2019), delves into what he calls the “two puzzles” of public anthropology: most of the widely read, popular books that deal with anthropological issues tend to be written by non-anthropologists. Why is that? The second puzzle, anthropologists have helped to enrich understanding of humanity’s past and present and facilitated concrete changes that improve people’s lives. Yet anthropology’s positive efforts have not often been highlighted in the world’s newspapers or other media outlets. Again, why?

Alongside Borosfki’s book, I suggest two articles. The first is by Andrea Cornwall’s, who in Acting Anthropologically (2019) considers the role of anthropologists in unsettling orthodoxies and provoking disquiet with taken for granted ways of thinking and doing. Her paper explores an approach to anthropology that takes anthropological practice seriously, and to that end the role of the anthropologist as activist and agent of change. The second is Didier Fassin’s Why Ethnography Matters (2013), which analytically differentiates two tasks for publicly-minded anthropologists: popularizing and politicizing ethnography for multiple publics. Here, Fassin evokes the risks related to the appropriation of the ethnographic work by the media and the loyalties toward the diverse and sometimes opposed subjects of ethnographic research.

The University 

There is no public appreciation of the merits and benefits of anthropology without a critical focus on the systems, processes, and relations of production that make anthropological knowledge possible in the first place. In The Neoliberal University and its Alternatives (2016), Michael Rustin walks us through the many centuries since the “invention” of the University only to show what higher education might look like if it differed from the current commercial, neoliberal, model. Among other suggestions, Rustin argues that post-school education is a public as well as a private good, and should be seen as the entitlement of all citizens, supported and funded by the democratic state. In an earlier contribution, Constituent Imagination (2007), Stevphen Shukaitis and David Graeber reasoned along similar lines, asking how we can create a space, ethic, and practice that uses the space of the university to go beyond itself and to create something else. “How can we open the university to use its resources for the benefit of movements and organizing?” – Shukaitis and Graeber ask – “How can we use it to create a forum for collective reflection, to re-imagine the world from wherever we find ourselves?”.

Today, public anthropologists strive – as Stefano Harney and Fred Moten would have it – “to be in but not of” the neoliberal University (2013), engaging pragmatically with the prospects for change afforded by strategic inside-activism. One aspect of this emerging academic activism revolves around the question of the knowledge commons. Indeed, if Anthropology aspires to reach the largest possible number of people, it first ought to confront a scholarly publishing system that actively endeavours to forestall the free circulation of ideas and creates artificial scarcity for profit. In Beyond Copyright and Technology (2014), Christopher Kelty noted how university administrators are still rewarding faculty based on publications, which are usually stored behind expensive paywalls. Review committees fall back on publishing metrics and journal reputation, which drives scholars to be desperate for that “credentialing” article in a major, paywalled journal. This creates another “cyclical crisis”, in Jobson’s words. The authors of the recent Labour of Love Manifesto (2020), all editors of independent scholar-led publications, take this argument further, arguing for a re-politicisation of scholarly publishing that could reclaim anthropology to a new critical agenda. Finally, in Other Anthropologies and Anthropology Otherwise (2005), Eduardo Restrepo and Arturo Escobar reflect, among other things, on how Universities in the Global North systematically profit from research collaborations in and with scholars in the Global South, giving anything in return.  

Operationalising Anthropology

Today, anthropology-trained individuals work everywhere, from the corporate world, to NGOs, to the cultural industry. Academic anthropology typically looks down to career paths that are perceived as misaligned with the (now questionable) values which encrust and adorn the ivory tower. This contempt is especially reserved for graduate students, who, as a recent PrecAnthro Collective report suggest, are more than ever facing an impossibly squeezed academic job market. Public Anthropology reserves an important role for applied, activist or differently engaged anthropologically informed projects. These projects tend to be animated by sensibilities and subjectivities that are often poorly represented by elite departments.

For instance, Kamari Clarke, in Toward a Critically Engaged Ethnographic Practice (2010), assesses the potential for corrective engagements with the US military that goes beyond the often sterile, virtue – signalling stance – prevalent in many academic quarters – of considering critique as the only form of scholarly agency. Charles Hale makes a similar argument to Clarke’s, when in Activist Research v. Cultural Critique (2008), he chastises “disengaged” anthropologists for the chauvinism they demonstrate when they fail to align their research goals with the political projects of organized groups of people in struggle. A recent, glaring example of emancipatory research practices that wed activism with theoretical rejuvenation in anthropology is Transcontinental Dialogues (2019). This book brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous anthropologists who work at the intersection of Indigenous rights, advocacy, and action research. Transcontinental Dialogues investigates how anthropological obligations manifest in differently situated alliances and what consequences these may have for anthropological practice and action.

Similarly, applied anthropology has long been reputed –and sometimes rightly so – to remain too close to various partisan or corporate interests, lending little credibility to its own lofty ideals. In recent years, public anthropologists have started reviving the legacy of applied anthropology, showing how working across difference, and outside one’s scholarly comfort zone, can still yield appreciable results for research participants. This is the case of the work of collectives of scholars who by authoring pieces such as Reclaiming Applied Anthropology (2006) and Applying Anthropology (2018) are demonstrating the possibility of translating anthropologists’ critical, careful thinking to a broader audience that is not based in the university.

Yet, public anthropology is at its best when accepting cross-fertilisation between different fields of knowledge production, diverging intellectual projects and biographies. When anthropology is recast as a space for the collective cultivation of a “constituent imagination,” as Graeber and Shukaitis put it, marginal or otherwise antagonistic subjectivities gain frontstage and become invested with the power to generate new knowledge. In Rethinking Public Anthropology through Epistemic Politics and Theoretical Practice (2013) Michal Osterweil shows what political anthropology might gain from incorporating the critical epistemology of the alter-globalisation movement. John Borneman’s Ethics, Morality, and Moralizing in Anthropological Research (2020) reflects on the limits of a particular brand of the anthropology of ethics by entering in dialogue with child sex molesters in rehabilitation programs. Finally, in Collaborating with the Radical Right (2019), Benjamin Teitelbaum provocatively challenges established ideas and liberal worldviews, which are often predicated on a misplaced sense of moral purity, by reflecting ethnographically on his own constructive and very often amicable relationships with members of the Norwegian Alt-Right. 

De-textualising anthropology

One final example of how public anthropology is expanding the horizon of what can be rightfully called anthropology, and its accompanying disciplinary praxes, is offered by briefly looking at recent attempts by young (and not so young) researchers to go beyond textual representation. Charlie Rumsby’s Retrospective (re)presentation (2020) skilfully navigates the possibilities of drawing, whether that be sketches, cartoons or illustrations, to enhance self-reflexivity, conduct anthropological fieldwork, and disseminate research findings to new audiences. Equally, Aleksandra Bartoszko in Graphic Possibilities (2019) communicate powerfully the potential of graphic ethnography for the dissemination of anthropological insights. Drawings, Nika Dubrovsky suggests, are also crucial when thinking about ways anthropology can help children question the value systems they have inherited. What are Kings (2021), where she articulates the problem of textuality, is a working book for children that grapples with big questions in anthropological theory – as in “what is sovereignty?” – through drawings.

Others, like the author of this text, are instead exploring digital publics and new avenues for publicity being opened by web-native formats. In Writing Hypertext (2019), Andrea Pia suggests that videogames can appear ‘good to play with’ to anthropologists if explored along the discursive tension generated in the friction between their escapist intentions and the opportunities of self-transformation that their mechanisms afford to players. Basing his reflections on the experience of developing and producing a digitised ethnography (i.e. a digital interactive story based on original fieldwork material), Pia argues that anthropologists may contribute to diversify the cultural offer of online gaming and expand the imaginative resources and endpoints of online journalism. Meanwhile, photo-essays are enjoying a second youth in online journals such as Roadsides. And Renato Rosaldo has coined antropoesía, poetic verses with an ethnographic sensibility, which challenges the limits of ethnography as it is usually practiced. 

Andrea E. Pia is Assistant Professor at the Department of Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The Anthropology of Cinema

Chihab El Khachab

Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies
University of Cambridge

March 15, 2021

Anthropological interest in film as a medium has historically been centred on ethnographic films, which were the hallmark of visual anthropology as a subfield. Over the past thirty years, however, there has been a noticeable movement in visual (and media) anthropology towards the analysis of film production and consumption beyond ethnographic films per se. Setting aside Hortense Powdermaker’s pioneering ethnography of commercial film production in 1940s Hollywood, the anthropology of cinema did not come together in a common disciplinary project until the early 2000s.

“The anthropology of cinema,” in Lotte Hoek’s succinct definition, “has emerged as a part of media anthropology. It asks what the cinema is (as technology, as institution, as form, etc.), and what it makes possible (as interdiction, as pleasure, as labour, etc.), within the particular contexts of the lives of our interlocutors” (2016). Moreover, this subfield shares a commitment to the long-term ethnographic study of filmmaking and film viewing based on participant observation among practitioners and consumers alike.

What is interesting, given this common methodological ground, is the extent to which ethnographies of cinema have had contrasting theoretical concerns. Constantine Nakassis (2020), for instance, proposes a “linguistic anthropology of cinema” in which the insights of linguistic anthropology are not just applied to cinema, but cinema also becomes a case to reflect on “semiotic mediation” in general. In a different vein, my recent book Making Film in Egypt (2021) examines how workers mediate expected yet unpredictable futures in complex technical processes through an ethnography of contemporary film production in Cairo. Such theoretical variety becomes ever more apparent throughout the following reading list, which reflects the diversity of orientations taken by the anthropology of cinema. Thus, beyond its focus on the world of filmmakers, the subfield has the potential to contribute to broader anthropological conversations in generative ways.

Grimaud, Emmanuel. (2003). Bollywood Film Studio, ou Comment les films se font à Bombay [Bollywood Film Studio, or How Films are Made in Bombay]. Paris: CNRS Éditions

This French ethnography has been underappreciated in Anglo-American scholarship, but it is a remarkably detailed exploration of filmmaking in 1990s Bombay. While a doctoral student, Grimaud worked as a direction assistant on Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam [Straight from the Heart, 1999] by Sanjay Bhansali, starring mega-stars Salman Khan and Aishwarya Rai. Following every step in the movie’s creation until its screening, Grimaud provides a richly textured account of the socio-technical process of production – from screenwriting and “story sessions” to scouting, set design, shooting, costume-making, acting, choreography, sound work, and editing. As fate would have it, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam would become, perhaps, the most famous film subjected to an in-depth ethnographic study. Yet Bollywood Film Studio offers much more: it is a landmark study of the material culture and technology of cinema, making it an important contribution to the “material turn” in social anthropology.

Ganti, Tejaswini. (2012). Producing Bollywood: Inside the Contemporary Hindi Film Industry. Durham: Duke University Press

More than an account of the industry and its products, which is covered in Ganti’s earlier book Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema (2004), Producing Bollywood is an analysis of the industry’s gradual professionalization since the 1990s as well as its everyday social and economic practices. Based on ethnographic research spanning more than fifteen years, Ganti traces how film workers engage in “boundary-work” to avoid the disdain to which Bollywood was subjected until it became an officially recognized industry, while analysing the ways in which film professionals respond to uncertainty about box-office outcomes through what she calls “production fictions”, or emic assumptions about what makes a film commercially successful. Producing Bollywood is, in this sense, a deft contribution to the anthropological study of uncertainty and its negotiation in everyday life.

Ortner, Sherry B. (2013). Not Hollywood: Independent Film at the Twilight of the American Dream. Durham: Duke University Press

After frustrated attempts to study major studios in Hollywood (see her “Access”, 2010), Ortner decided to explore the independent film scene, its products, and its production milieu in the United States. Not Hollywood combines in-depth readings into independent films as well as ethnographic vignettes on the off-Hollywood industry’s functioning based on what Ortner calls “interface ethnography”, or the study of an industry through public-facing events. Ortner argues that independent cinema is indicative of a specific “Gen X” attitude towards American politics and social life, which translates into a dark, gritty genre of critique addressed to the mainstream film industry and, more broadly, to the deleterious effects of neoliberalism. Thus, Not Hollywood is as much a contribution to the anthropology of neoliberalism and its aftershocks as it is a study of filmmaking.

Hoek, Lotte. (2014). Cut-Pieces: Celluloid Obscenity and Popular Cinema in Bangladesh. New York: Columbia University Press

Cut-Pieces follows the making of a Bangladeshi action-romance film, pseudonymously called Mintu the Murderer. With great attention to the detail of screenwriting, shooting, and postproduction, Hoek is interested in the way in which filmmakers anticipate the adding (or removing) of “cut-pieces” into/from the film: these are short segments of obscene celluloid added to the film negative in order to attract an audience of rural male moviegoers. Hoek follows how these cut-pieces are both anticipated and hidden, not only in the course of filmmaking, but also in fanzines and in cinema halls. By showing a processual interest in the visibility and invisibility of obscene material in Bangladeshi popular cinema, Hoek opens new avenues to think through questions of materiality and the ethnographer’s positionality (and what she interestingly calls “participant non-observation”).

Wilkinson-Weber, Clare M. (2014). Fashioning Bollywood: The Making and Meaning of Hindi Film Costume. London: Bloomsbury Academic

Fashioning Bollywood is unique in this list because it examines a specific filmmaking craft: the world of costume-making. Wilkinson-Weber describes the division of labour behind this craft in great detail, bringing the reader from tailoring workshops to the stylists and costume assistants on set to the actors on screen. The book further shows how costumes help actors embody their characters, while revealing the intricate connections between the film and fashion worlds in Bombay. Following the social life of the Hindi film costume, Fashioning Bollywood becomes in fact a stage to explore theoretical questions on industrial labour, embodiment, and gendered performance in a late capitalist setting.

Meyer, Birgit. (2015). Sensational Movies: Video, Vision, and Christianity in Ghana. Berkeley: University of California Press

Meyer has had a long-standing interest in Ghanaian Pentecostalism, with a focus on the intersection of religion and mass mediation. This interest led her to exploring the burgeoning industry of video movies in Accra, whose productions show a keen interest in making the occult visible, while portraying it according to Pentecostal sensibilities. Sensational Movies constitutes the summation of decades of ethnographic research in Accra, which allows Meyer to trace the long historical arc of the Ghanaian video film industry while writing more pointed analyses of its relationship with urban modernization, technological change, and religious belief. This book is therefore a contribution to the anthropology of religion and cinema at once, by specifically addressing how belief is mediated in cinematic form.

Pandian, Anand. (2015). Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation. Durham: Duke University Press

Reel World tries to capture the overall atmosphere in which Tamil filmmakers working in Chennai create their movies. More than a study of cinema, Pandian wrote a study of serendipity, or how serendipity is marshalled by filmmakers in the various acts of creation constituting their movies. While the book’s overall arc broadly imitates the process of film production as in Grimaud’s ethnography, each chapter plunges right in the middle of the action among film practitioners confronted with unpredictable events. The writing style has an effervescent quality mimicking, in some respects, the effervescence of filmmaking. This makes Reel World an interesting addition to the corpus of experimental ethnographies and, more broadly, a provocation to think about human creativity in unanticipated ways.

Martin, Sylvia J. (2016). Haunted: An Ethnography of the Hollywood and Hong Kong Media Industries. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Martin’s book is the only study on this list based on long-term fieldwork in two different film industries: Hollywood and Hong Kong. Moving back and forth between the two locations, Martin invites the reader to reflect on the commonalities and differences in the organization of precarious film labour, the risks that film workers take (through a gripping examination of professional body doubles), and the connection between filmmaking and spirituality. The book’s title, Haunted, points to the various ways in which filmmakers in Hollywood and Hong Kong think about the filmmaking process as imbued with other-worldly presences and powers. This ethnography can be read, in this sense, as a contribution to the anthropology of everyday belief in a context usually absent from the anthropology of religion.

Srinivas, Lakshmi. (2016). House Full: Indian Cinema and the Active Audience. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

House Full offers a rich ethnography of moviegoing practices based on extensive experience in Bangalore, with additional insights into the local Kannada-language film industry. In direct conversation with film studies – where a uniform model of passive, silent, anonymous spectatorship still prevails – Srinivas proposes that the Indian audiences with whom she interacted are “active”, both in the sense of actively appropriating narratives on screen and engaging in a range of ancillary practices (e.g., choosing their theatre, securing tickets and seats) which are integral to the moviegoing experience. Srinivas’ ethnography contributes as much to the literature on film spectatorship as it does to the analysis of gender, class, and spatial politics in contemporary India.

Rosas Mantecón, Ana. (2018). Ir al cine: Antropología de los públicos, la ciudad y las pantallas [Going to the Movies: An Anthropology of Publics, the City, and Screens]. México: Editorial GEDISA

Ir al cine is a historical ethnography of moviegoing in Mexico City, drawing on the traditions of urban studies, media studies, and visual anthropology from Latin America and beyond. Ana Rosas Mantecón notes that moviegoing has received very little attention in comparison to film analysis or production studies. She goes on to provide a rich account of the historical changes in the “entertainment pact” between filmmakers, theatre owners, and urban audiences in Mexico City throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Rosas Mantecón deftly shows how moviegoing creates different modes of togetherness which, beyond the screening itself, contribute to a grounded sociohistorical understanding of urban life in an evolving industrial context.

Read more about Chihab’s work at

Chronic Present

Lukas Ley

Center for Asian and Transcultural Studies, Institute of Anthropology, Heidelberg University

September 2020

This reading list covers studies within anthropology and cognate disciplines that deal with situations where people are stuck in the present. This is not some warped time loop or hole in the matrix out of a sci-fi flick, though conjuring up such images might be of use to some. As a social scientific concept, the chronic present rather attempts to account for the fact that certain individuals or communities entertain unproductive relationships to time and have little to no say in the making of the future. Assuming an unchanging present allows us to examine the cultural and social configurations that tie people to a certain position in time. The chronic present further reckons with the emotional and bodily effects of an advanced encapsulation by the present by framing the perception and experience of stagnation and repetition.

While some studies have related the experience of chronic time to (urban) governance in the era of full-blown capitalism, others have traced it to degraded environments or dysfunctional infrastructural assemblages. In each scenario, the constant breakdown of vital infrastructures and environmental equilibria forces people to repair or reinstate a status quo to survive. This continuous caring deprives people of opportunities and exhausts their energy. Other scholars also point to root causes for chronicity in conceptions of citizenship and racialized difference, which often lead to lasting spatial and/or temporal confinement in border facilities or immigrant situations. In sum, the concept chronic time grapples with the reproduction of social inequality, interrogating both the superstructural conditions of chronicity, but also the infititesmal acts of repair and salvation that lead to repetition.

I have found an instantiation of chronic time in urban Java, Indonesia. In the coastal city Semarang, floodplain residents deal with the constantly looming possibility of infrastructural breakdown and actual events of technological failure when flooding hits. This experience of catastrophe repeating itself shapes people’s relationships with the future in specific ways: It socializes floodplain populations into lives governed by the futurity of breakdown and recurrent flooding. Most residents respond to this by fixing and adapting their homes and public infrastructure. While flooding itself as well as and other water-related problems are, then, essential features of this chronic present, this relation to time is not just an effect of the inherently moist environment that people live in. That is, it is also a product of a series of political exclusions that can be traced back to colonial times, and which created a spatialized moral hierarchy of populations, placing the residents of Semarang’s coastal area at its bottom. Today, flood victims are stuck in a world concerned with present-ness because long-term fixes never materialize, changing little in the way of providing people with practical future plans.

This reading list complements Felix Ringel and Sonja Moghaddari’s list on Anthropologies of the Future. The chronic present is intimately linked to representations, knowledges, and technologies of time. The chronic present presumes, however, that some people’s time-related acts don’t succeed in “fully ‘orientating’ [the] present, but they sure leave their traces.”

Cazdyn, Eric M. 2012. The Already Dead: The New Time of Politics, Culture, and Illness. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Eric Cazdyn, cultural philosopher, proposes an autoethnographic portrait of the chronic present in this visionary book. He traces the effects of standard cancer treatment on our perception of time which becomes determined by medication, risk of relapse, and fear of death. The cultural configuration of medicine, however, denies the actual possibility of death and dispels alternative perceptions of the End. In Cazdyn’s systemic critique of this new “chronic,” the figure of “the already dead” represents a metaphysical and phenomenological condition in which the subject has been killed but has yet to die. This chronic condition critically hinges on the ways in which death is brought into life, namely as the uncertain consequence of a series of breakdowns that require constant management. He extends this chronic mode to governance and capitalism, reflecting on the ways in which environmental and financial risk are managed to merely postpone catastrophe.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 2011. Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism. Durham N.C.: Duke Univ Pr.

In this book, anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli puts forward the notion of quasi-events to analyze the minor or elusive effects of individual efforts on dominant constellations in late liberalism. She elucidates the tricky relationship between the present and the future by rethinking eventfulness and how it is articulated within the economies of late liberalism. Povinelli points to naturalized distributions of risk that posit certain crises as quasi-events: a type of crisis that puts a repeated strain on the lives of subjects without completely disrupting them. Povinelli (2011, 4) frames the suffering of marginalized subjects in late liberal economies as a series of quasi-events through which their lives digress into a “form of death that can be certified as due to the vagary of ‘natural causes’.” Suffering is then an accountable predicament that arises from specific arrangements of time. She argues that suffering is dispersed and therefore cannot be registered as from the perspective of causality.

Lainez, Nicolas. 2019. “Treading Water: Street Sex Workers Negotiating Frantic Presents and Speculative Futures in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam.” Time & Society 28 (2): 804–27.

In my own book, Building on Borrowed Time (forthcoming, University of Minnesota Press 2021), I consider flooding as a temporal regime that forces residents in North Semarang to engage in something that Nicolas Lainez has fittingly called “treading water.” Lainez (2019:806) uses this phrase to describe how precarious Vietnamese sex workers anxiously “put effort into keeping themselves afloat but never furthering their status and lives or catching up with the currents of development and progress.” For this surplus population excluded from formal education and stable jobs, staying afloat requires risking their health and lives in highly precarious and dangerous work settings. Importantly, Lainez shows that “desynchronized” sex workers enjoy relative autonomy from the exigencies of clock time labour while engaging in present-oriented practices, such as gambling, that “distorts and shrinks the past and the future towards a saturated and speculative present” (id.:814). Similar to Lainez, I hold that the poor population of Semarang’s North is literally “submerged” in a present-ness, a state of being reproduced by the environmental fluctuations of the intertidal zone in which they live and entrenched by the systematic infrastructural neglect and desynchronization of the city’s North.

Roitman, Janet L. 2014. Anti-Crisis. Durham: Duke University Press.

Janet Roitman approaches chronic time through the cultural construct of crisis. Crisis is often considered a breakthrough moment in history, namely when existing patterns turn out outdated, impractical, or dangerous. This diagnosis allows new rhythms to emerge. But as Roitman shows, crisis is rarely such a revolutionary moment because, as an experience, it is always mediated and pre-textured by existing patterns of interpretation. Today, crisis is mediated by experts speaking on television and government procedures. Crisis to Roitman is a second-order assessment and displays a culturally specific and always biased framing of time. On a political level, crisis can be harnessed and used to push specific measures. She uses the example of the 2008 financial meltdown to show how US president Barrack Obama strategically deploys a crisis narrative to justify measures that left the disastrous economic system effectively in place. “Anti-crisis,” then, too explains the grip that dominant framings of history  have on our relationship to time.

Sharma, Sarah. 2014. In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics. Durham: Duke University Press.

Being a bit of an outlier, Sarah Sharma’s 2014 book In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics considers the effects of dominant time in everyday life. Sharma’s key notion of being “out of time” deserves to be mentioned here. Her study takes its cue from popular theories that consider time as progressively accelerating, thus eclipsing geographical distance and, ultimately, space. Sharma provides empirical material from various social and cultural contexts that contests such assumptions. Instead of acceleration of time and the disappearance of space, capitalism produces dominant temporalities that are firmly rooted in space. She describes individuals who see themselves forced to calibrate their lives to these dominant architectures of time. She demonstrates that certain populations must position themselves flexibly and with varying degrees of success to the dominant time of capitalist economies, expressed in urban development plans, infrastructural modernization, and budgeting cycles. While In the Meantime lacks a “barefoot”-anthropological approach, which would have allowed a sensorial exploration of temporal mismatches and domination, it usefully shows how people have to constantly grapple to remain “in time” by resynchronizing with the present of powerful others. “Being out of time” is a permanently looming danger, a shadow that hovers over people.

Digital ethnography

Heikki Wilenius

Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology

University of Helsinki

August 2020

I’ve had an on-and-off interest in online social phenomena for a while now. I fancied becoming an internet ethnographer during my undergrad days, but finally, my interests veered into other things. However, I’ve always kept at least half an eye on the literature. Also, since COVID-19 botched my postdoc fieldwork plans, I – like many others – started to think with new urgency about what kind of “mixed methods” one could utilize when doing office chair anthropology.

I had two selection criteria for this bibliography. Firstly, I have only included works – with one notable exception – which take as their object of research the digitally mediated interaction of humans (and other entities, such as bits of computer programs). Secondly, I have tried to choose studies that attempt to contribute something to the anthropological understanding of human behaviour more generally (i.e., ethnographic theory).

Even though the selection is a bit eclectic – among other things, there’s texts on semiotics, the ontological turn, performativity, and publics – I’ve attempted to delineate a field of inquiry, that (1) avoids fetishizing the “digital”, (2) recognizes that various forms of the “digital” have already reconfigured anthropological inquiry, alongside other social practices, and (3) is open to the possibilities that follow from this reconfiguration.

All the references are listed in chronological order.

Dibbell, Julian. 1998. “A Rape in Cyberspace.” In My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World, 11–29. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, Inc. [Originally published in 1993].

This is an early text about performativity, collective action, politics, and violence in an online meeting place called LambdaMOO. I think it is a useful historical reminder that the issue should not be the “newness” of digital media – some of these social forms are more than 30 years old!

Dibbell’s text is also interesting in how it shows that – reminding of Victor Turner’s analysis in Schism and Continuity in an African Society (1957)– the contours of a social world come to the fore and potentially get renegotiated in situations of conflict also in digital contexts.

Butler, Judith. 1997. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. New York: Routledge.

Even though this book discusses textual and spoken discourses, I think its analysis of performativity is good to think with regarding online domains as well. For example, when Dibbell’s article is read through the lens of Butler’s analysis, it is clear that communication in digital domains can have performative effects, but how they differ from performativity mediated elsewhere depends on the media ideology (see Gershon 2017) of the platform in question. Dibbell examined a MOO, a text-based real-time environment, where most participants subscribed to the idea that their avatars had a personally meaningful connection to their “real live” selves. Hence, they made themselves “linguistically vulnerable” to the “injurious” speech acts on the platform, in line with Butler’s analysis.

Kelty, Christopher M. 2008. Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software and the Internet. Durham: Duke University Press.

This is an ethnography of open source advocates, describing the ethos of “geeks” and mapping their social history. Kelty argues that this social space should be understood as a “recursive public”, which, in addition to the properties of a public Michael Warner has outlined, is constituted by attention to reproducing the possibility of the said public. Kelty’s argument is important in the way it points attention to the ways “the digital” is reproduced in society. Digital infrastructures consist of more than fiber optic cables – things like specific techniques of the self are vital for their reproduction.

Coleman, Gabriella. 2014. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. London: Verso.

On the face of it, this is an ethnography of an acephalous social movement, the Anonymous. However, it is also a study of how the crowd functions, in the tradition of Elias Canetti’s Masse und Macht, utilizing digital methods in order to gain an unprecedentedly nuanced view of the dynamics of a mass movement.

Fattal, Alex. 2014. “Hostile Remixes on YouTube: A New Constraint on pro-FARC Counterpublics in Colombia.” American Ethnologist 41, no. 2: 320–35.

This is an analysis of the politics of “remixing” digital content, namely, propaganda videos in the Colombian armed conflict, buttressed with interviews of the different participants of the conflict. The analysis concludes that the different hierarchical positions of publics and counterpublics get reproduced in the context of the circulation of YouTube videos. Finally, Fattal argues that the varying dynamics and reconfigurations of circulation should be given more attention by ethnographic inquiry.

Pink, Sarah, Heather Horst, John Postill, Larissa Hjorth, Tania Lewis, and Jo Tacchi. 2015. Digital Ethnography: Principles and Practice. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.

This book delineates categories of ethnographic analysis, such as “things” or “events”, and examines how they are reconfigured by digital practices and what implications this has for the researcher. The chapters make a conscious effort not to reify “the digital”, but instead, treat it as a spectrum of media phenomena, with associated implications for the study of ethnographic categories.

Boellstorff, Tom. 2016. “For Whom the Ontology Turns: Theorizing the Digital Real.” Current Anthropology 57 (4): 387–408.

This essay reframes the debates in the so-called ontological turn into something that can be used to analyse the difference between “digital” and “real”. Boellstorff argues that the digital/real dichotomy is a false distinction, and suggests that it is more useful to think in terms of similitude and difference. Instead of conceptualizing the digital as a simulation, the digital can be as “real” as the physical: for example, the physical is often modelled after digital networks.

Nardi, Bonnie A. 2016. “Chapter 11. When Fieldnotes Seem to Write Themselves: Ethnography Online.” In eFieldnotes. The Makings of Anthropology in the Digital World, edited by Roger Sanjek and Susan W. Tratner, 192–209. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Nardi’s article, on the basis of three ethnographic examples, problematizes the traditional definition of fieldnotes and argues that the definition of fieldnotes should be extended to include “natively inscribed happenings in the field that are automatically recorded in computer files and coextensive with the activity under study” (p. 204).

Gray, Patty A. 2016. “Memory, Body, and the Online Researcher: Following Russian Street Demonstrations via Social Media.” American Ethnologist 43 (3): 500–510.

Gray argues that a digital ethnography allowed her to “be then” if not “be there” during the phenomenon she was investigating (opposition protests in 2010s Russia). By her “copresence” and sensual/bodily experiences of participating in the protests, she took part in the reality of the street protests, allowing her to collect ethnographic data of the protests.

Beukes, Suzanne. 2017. “An Exploration of the Role of Twitter in the Discourse Around Race in South Africa: Using the #Feesmustfall Movement as a Pivot for Discussion.” In Digital Environments, edited by Urte Undine Frömming, Steffen Köhn, Samantha Fox, and Mike Terry, 195–210. Ethnographic Perspectives Across Global Online and Offline Spaces. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag.

Beukes analyses the Twitter-facilitated discourse on white privilege and education, unforeseen in South Africa. She problematizes the view of social media discourse as a public sphere and instead frames it as a tool for social mobilization and expression of group interests.

Gershon, Ilana. 2017. “Language and the Newness of Media.” Annual Review of Anthropology 46 (1): 15–31.

According to Gershon, the role of digital media should be analysed in the historical context of emergent media, taking into account the media ideologies, i.e., the beliefs on the meaning, function, and significance of each medium. She reviews the literature at the intersection of linguistic anthropology and media anthropology, and sees many promising avenues of research, for example, using insights from existing studies on standardization to analyse how entities such as markets or nations attempt to standardize the use of new media.

[1] This bibliography was compiled with the help of four things/persons/collectives:

  1. A thread started by Rachel Irwin on anthropology-matters listserv, asking for online ethnography resources, which grew into this collaborative annotated bibliography:
  2. LSE Digital Ethnography Collective’s reading list, the latest version should be available here:
  3. Philip Budka’s selection on digital and online ethnography:
  4. Sonja Moghaddari, who curates this blog, and suggested this bibliography in the first place.

Thanks, everybody!

Online Biannual Meeting 2020

As a Network of the European Association of Social Anthropologists we are having our biannual meeting on Monday July 20 at 5pm Lisbon time. Participation is free, and we will discuss the last two years, the future plans for the Network of Ethnographic Theory, and vote on new convenors. You can join us here:

[Correction: Previously listed as 4pm (CEST), it’s actually 5pm (CEST)!]

See you Monday!

Anthropologies of the Future

Felix Ringel

Department of Anthropology

Durham University

& Sonja Moghaddari

Department of Sociology and Social Research

University of Trento

June 2020

The future is in crisis, or at least that is what many people around the world think and feel in the late-liberal, post-industrial era. Climate change, economic crises, the failure of both, the developmentalists state in the global south and the welfare state in the global north. Decaying infrastructures, precarious lifeworlds, incurable diseases. Arguably, these and other real-world problems are the reason why anthropologists have – finally! – started to pay more explicit and sustained attention to the future.

However, the future is and has always been a major experiential dimension of human life. In all cultures and societies, people think ahead, plan, predict, hope or fear in one way or another. The future might not always have been as pronounced a temporal dimension as in modern (capitalist and socialist) times; it has been there nonetheless. Why has it taken the discipline so long to tackle the future? Why have anthropologists continued to understand human beings more through their pasts and less through their prospects, concerns and hopes for the future? Why are we not better equipped to account for the many different relations humans individually and collectively build up to the future?

One reason for the long absence of the future in anthropology might be a metaphysical one: in any given present, the future, arguably, does not exist. So why study it? A study of what has not occurred yet, might, for some, verge on the unscientific. Following a general reluctance in the social sciences, anthropologists might not want to be seen predicting the future. We are an empirical science, after all, and our ethnographic material, by necessity, is of the past. Still, since the future is everywhere, there is no fleeing from it. Many colleagues have recently started to showcase the future in their work.

This reading list is a first and broad introduction into an exciting and diverse field of anthropological thought and writing. After a short theoretical overview, we focus on a variety of themes and authors in order to underline the potential of the anthropology of the future. What all of these accounts of the future have in common is that they respond to the aforementioned metaphysical challenge: the future’s non-existence. Whether they deal with utopian anarchist practices, professional planning routines or everyday concerns, they have to confront the fact that human ways of ‘knowing’ the future are diverse, complex, and often unreliable. 

However, these representational and non-representational modes of knowing the future have an impact in the present. They might not always succeed in fully ‘orientating’ (as Bryant and Knight 2019 have it) this present, but they sure leave their traces. The items on this list all deal with concrete and contested affective and epistemic representations of the future, and the effects and affordances these representations produce in the present. This reading list does not pretend to be exhaustive; it is conceived as an invitation to explore. We chose a few exemplary publications in order to introduce debates within the anthropology of the future, across professional hierarchies, gender, race and language differences. 

Theories of the Future

The following two sections attempt a short and necessarily incomplete overview of the anthropology of the future. This first part provides a robust reading list for more theoretical explorations without discussing any contribution in-depth. For many reasons, the discipline – as other social sciences – has not yet developed a comprehensive, uncontested theory of the future. Different philosophical traditions allow different anthropological approaches to the future: eternalist, presentist, pragmatist, phenomenological. Arguably, anthropology still has to come up with its own theoretical framework. That is why we, too, focus on ethnography.

With few exceptions (for example, Barbara Adam’s 1990 Time and Social Theory and Vincent Crapanzano’s 2003 Imaginative Horizons), theories of the future in the human and social sciences are rare. Prominent approaches usually evolve around fashionable temporal concepts such as risk, hope, prefiguration or utopia, and integrate various philosophical ideas about time. Anthropological theorisations of the future also started with a surge of interest in time. Nancy Munn’s essay “The Cultural Anthropology of Time” and Alfred Gell’s monograph The Anthropology of Time, both published in 1992, still state the absence of the future in the discipline’s long history. However, in some sense, the future has always been prevalent, whether in early theories of (social) continuity and (cultural) change or in the sustained disputes about linear and cyclical understandings of time throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s between Clifford Geertz and Maurice Bloch, and between Marshall Sahlins, Gananath Obeyesekere and others. Still, none of these landmark publications took on the future as a topic in its own right.

More topical bodies of literature stepped forward, and here is where our reading list of the anthropology of the future begins. James Ferguson’s (1999) Expectations of Modernity problematised the future in the context of (failed) development.The anthropology of postsocialism had to extend its usual concerns with the past to the future, such as in Dominic Boyer’s (2006) work on East German politics of the future or Haldis Haukanis and Suzanna Trnka’s 2013 special section on “Recasting pasts and futures in postsocialist Europe”. The anthropology of planning (for example, Simone Abram and Gisa Weskalnys’ 2013 Elusive Promises), too, tackled the future, whilst others took the detour of the past for the same purpose, such as David Rosenberg and Susan Harding in their 2005 Histories of the Future or Peter Pels in his 2015 article “Modern times: Seven steps towards the future”. 

Abram, Simone, and Gisa Weszkalnys. (eds) (2013) Elusive Promises: Planning in the Contemporary World New York: Berghahn Books.

Boyer, Dominic. 2006. Ostalgie and the Politics of the Future in Eastern Germany.” Public Culture 18 (2): 361-381.

Ferguson, James. 1999. Expectations of Modernity: myths and meanings of urban life in the Zambian Copperbelt Berkeley: University of California Press.

Haukanes, Haldis and Susanna Trnka (eds) (2013) “Recasting pasts and futures in postsocialist Europe.” Theme Section. Focaal Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 66: 3–72.

Rosenberg, David, and Susan Harding. 2005. Histories of the Future Duke: Duke University Press. 

Pels, Peter.  2015. “Modern times: Seven steps towards the future.” Current Anthropology 56(6): 779–795.

Conceptually, Paul Rabinow and his colleagues advocated early on for a reformulation of Michel Foucault’s history of the present into an anthropology of the contemporary, whether in Rabinow’s 2003 Anthropos Today or in Rabinow, George Marcus, James Faubion and Tobias Rees’ 2008 Design for an Anthropology of the Contemporary. Their approach allowed a first glimpse of the immediate future. Also influenced by Foucault, Jane Guyer in her groundbreaking 2007 article on “Prophecy and the Future” led the charge on near and distant futures. Inspired by Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze, Matt Hodges (2008, 2014) and Morten Nielsen (2011) proposed a less linear and epistemic as well as more durational approach to the future, granting the future a more imminent existence in the present. Felix Ringel further develops Adam’s presentist approach to the future, extrapolating the temporal agency human beings exercise with regards to the future (2016a&b), a theme that Arjun Appadurai had taken up earlier in his book on The Future as Cultural Fact. With a more distinctly anthropological theoretical background, Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov in his 2017 monograph Two Lenins – A Brief Anthropology of Time embeds futures in the complex and contested relations between different temporalities. 

Appadurai, Arjun. 2013. The Future as Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition London: Verso.

Guyer, Jane. 2007. “Prophecy and the near future: Thoughts on macroeconomic, evangelical, and punctuated time.” American Ethnologist 34(3): 409–421.

Hodges, Matt. 2008. “Rethinking time’s arrow: Bergson, Deleuze and the Anthropology of Time.” Anthropological Theory 8:399-429.

Hodges, Matt. 2014. “Immanent Anthropology: a comparative study of ‘process’ in contemporary France.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 20(S1): 33–51.

Nielsen, Morten. 2011. “Futures within: Reversible times and house-building in Maputo, Mozambique.” Anthropological Theory 11(4): 397–423.

Rabinow, Paul. 2003. Anthropos Today New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Rabinow, Paul, George Marcus, James Faubion and Tobias Rees. 2008. Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary Duke: Duke University Press. 

Ringel, Felix. 2016a. “Beyond Temporality: Notes on the Anthropology of Time from a Shrinking Fieldsite.” Anthropological Theory 16(4): 390-412.

Ringel, Felix. 2016b. “Can Time be Tricked? – A Theoretical Introduction.” The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 34(1): 22-31.

Ssorin-Chaikov, Nikolai. 2017. Two Lenins – A Brief Anthropology of Time Chicago: HAU Books.

The latest culmination of these theoretical efforts can be found in accounts solely focused on the future: From more political invocations of the future of and for our discipline, such as in Laura Bear’s 2017 article “Anthropological Futures” and in one of our own contributions (Felix Ringel’s 2018 presentist monograph Back to the Postindustrial Future, which maps the many representational and non-representational relations to the future of the citizens of Germany’s fastest shrinking city) to the exciting outputs of the EASA Future Anthropology Network, notably Juan Francisco Salazar, Sarah Pink, Andrew Irving and Johannes Sjoberg’s edited volume Anthropologies and Futures, which reconsiders the discipline’s methodological approaches to the future and argues for a different future role of anthropology. 

Bear, Laura. 2017. “Anthropological futures: for a critical political economy of capitalist time.” Social Anthropology 25(2): 142-158.

Ringel, Felix. 2018. Back to the Postindustrial Future: An Ethnography of Germany’s Fastest-Shrinking City. EASA Series. New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books. 

Salazar, J, S. Pink, A. Irving, J. Sjoberg. (eds) 2017. Anthropologies and Futures: Researching Emerging and Uncertain Worlds London: Bloomsbury.

The most recent exponent of these ground-breaking times of and for the future in our discipline is Rebecca Bryant and Daniel Knight’s The Anthropology of the Future. Whilst also explicitly relating their own approach to ongoing philosophical debates, Bryant and Knight propose a helpful taxonomy of selective orientations to the future: anticipation, expectation, speculation, potentiality, hope and destiny. These concepts go full circle again: they show how the future can have an impact on the present, even though the future does not yet exist. As a taxonomy, however, they also invite further work, both theoretically and ethnographically, to further expand our discipline’s engagement with the future.

Bryant, Rebecca, and Daniel Knight. 2019. The Anthropology of the Future Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ethnographies of the future 

So far, we have explained why and how the future recently emerged as a field of research in anthropology and we have laid out some of its most relevant theoretical debates. This being a blog concerned with ethnographic theory, the remaining part of this reading list is concerned with introducing literature that centers on ethnography to create theoretical knowledge about the future within four subfields of the discipline (anthropology of Outer Space, of protest, of the state, and high finance). From everyday dealings with the uncanny to effervescent timescapes in social movements, from carving out a space for agency within discontinuities of failed futures to epistemological reflections about the role of the anthropologist in shaping what is yet to come: these entries highlight the dialectic relation between knowledge and affect, between representational and non-representational modes of knowing the future. 

Lepselter, Susan. 2016. The Resonance of Unseen Things: Poetics, Power, Captivity, and UFOs in the American Uncanny. Book Collections on Project MUSE. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Lepselter’s ethnography is a poetic and unconventional introduction to one of the main themes that concern the anthropology of the future: diverse vernacular interpretations of modernity, capitalism and progress and the everyday affective orientations to the future they stimulate. This book, “a semiotic journey”, theorizes the future rather implicitly. Understanding stories as theory, Lepselter introduces us to the lived worlds of UFO experiencers in the (dominantly White working class) American West of the 1990s. She shows how advances in technology, state and corporate surveillance together with the felt distance from the “powers that be” create apprehensions of apocalypse, which resonate with the uncanny traumas of American colonial crimes. In the familiar space of half-knowledge, causation gets blurred as the future and the past, acceleration and nostalgia overlap.

Further reading:

The anthropology of Outer Space emerged as one of the first fields of anthropological research that takes social meaning-making of – and with – the future seriously. Lepselter’s ethnography is an example of how this strand of research intersects with research into various Protestant Christian movements, and Indigenous and New Age spiritualities. They all show that the experience of unknown futures provokes everyday earthly affect to revolve around the anticipation of limitations and their imaginative transgression. They examine how the expectations of apocalypse create present worlds by opening collective imagination towards cosmological renewal and the conjuring of “counter-futures” (see Sabine Mohamed’s reading list on Afrofuturism).

Battaglia, Debbora, Christof F. Roth, D. Samuels, and S. Lepselter. 2006. E.T. Culture: Anthropology in Outerspaces Duke: Duke University Press.

Carey, Matthew (ed.). 2019 “Apocalypses”. Journal Special Issue, Terrain 71.

Cometti, Geremia. 2015. Lorsque le brouillard a cessé de nous écouter. Changement climatique et migrations chez les Q’eros des Andes péruviennes Berne : Peter Lang.

Masco, Joseph. “The End of Ends.” Anthropological Quarterly 85, no. 4 (2012): 1107-124. Accessed June 16, 2020.

Pels, Peter. 2013. “Amazing Stories: How Science Fiction Sacralizes the Secular.” In Deus in Machina: Religion, Technology, and the Things in Between: Religion, Technology, and the Things in Between, edited by Jeremy Stolow, 213–38. New York: Fordham University Press.

Pels, Peter. 2018. “Anthropology as Science Fiction, or How Print Capitalism Enchanted Victorian Science.” In Magical Capitalism: Enchantment, Spells, and Occult Practices in Contemporary Economies, edited by Brian Moeran and Timothy de Waal Malefyt, 239–68. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Robbins, Joel. 1998. “On Reading ‘World News’: Apocalyptic Narrative, Negative Nationalism and Transnational Christianity in a Papua New Guinea Society.” Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice 42 (2). Berghahn Books: 103–30.

Robbins, Joel. “Secrecy and the Sense of an Ending: Narrative, Time, and Everyday Millenarianism in Papua New Guinea and in Christian Fundamentalism.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 43, no. 3 (2001): 525-51.

Stewart, Kathleen, and Susan Harding. 1999. “Bad Endings: American Apocalypsis.” Annual Review of Anthropology 28 (1). Annual Reviews: 285–310.

Valentine, David, Olson, Valerie A., and Debbora Battaglia (eds.). 2012. “Extreme: Humans at Home in the Cosmos”. Journal Special Issue, Anthropological Quarterley 85 (4).

Krøijer, Stine. 2015. Figurations of the Future: Forms and Temporalities of Left Radical Politics in Northern Europe. Ethnography, Theory, Experiment. New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Bridging social movement literature and classical issues in anthropology, Krøijer’s ethnography of Left Radical groups reconceptualizes the notion of cosmology and argues for a non-chronological conception of the future. Set around the global economic crisis in 2007/08, the book focuses on the preparation and realization of extraordinary activist events, but also traces everyday forms of protest. Krøijer demonstrates that these collectivities see capitalism as a discontinuous, yet all-encompassing cosmology to which no clear route of escape is in sight. On the affective level, their activism is therefore shaped by indeterminacy and open-endedness. Against the idea of prefigurative politics, she explains why activists in the Radical Left perceive time in a non-linear way: as they oscillate between two co-present perspectives of dead time and active time which are both bodily and temporal, it is only in the ephemeral active times that the future exists. This practice, which she calls figuration, allows activists to momentarily give determinate form to an indeterminate future.

Further reading:

Krøijer’s book takes up concepts that have been controversially discussed in anthropological research on the future within politics and social movements: prefiguration, imagination and utopia. Emerging through the study of new social movements, and in particular the decolonial, feminist, environmental and anarchist movements of the 2000’s, these concepts refer to the anticipation of the future through means-end unity, in other words, the conjuring of an ideal society through present activist practices. More recent work, instead, critiques the recursive and processual character of this acting “as if” for its linear understanding of time and hailing of progress that mirrors evolutionary aspects of modernization theory. Highlighting apprehensions of different forms of collapse and disaster, these studies foreground presentism or an open-ended, generative approach to the future as a way to attend to affect such as frustration, anxious hope and disconnection.

Bonilla, Yarimar. 2015. Non-Sovereign Futures: French Caribbean Politics in the Wake of Disenchantment. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press.

Cooper, Davina. 2014. Everyday Utopias: The Conceptual Life of Promising Spaces. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Graeber, David. 2002. “The New Anarchists.” New Left Review 13: 61–73.

Graeber, David. 2009. Direct Action: An Ethnography. Edinburgh, Oakland, Baltimore: AK Press.

Gordon, Uri. 2017. “Prefigurative Politics between Ethical Practice and Absent Promise.” Political Studies 66 (2): 521–37.

Gould, Deborah. 2019. “On (Not) Knowing What Is to Be Done (In 17 Affective Registers).” Emotions and Society 1 (1): 15–43.

Juris, Jeffrey S. 2008. Networking Futures: The Movements against Corporate Globalization. Experimental Futures. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Maeckelbergh, Marianne. 2009. The Will of the Many: How the Alterglobalisation Movement Is Changing the Face of Democracy. Anthropology, Culture, and Society. New York: Pluto Press.

Ringel, Felix. 2012. “Towards Anarchist Futures? Creative Presentism, Vanguard Practices and Anthropological Hopes.” Critique of Anthropology 32 (2): 173–88.

Nielsen, Morten. 2014. “A Wedge of Time: Futures in the Present and Presents without Futures in Maputo, Mozambique.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 20 (S1). John Wiley & Sons, Ltd: 166–82. 

Nielsen’s ethnography-based article destabilizes ideas of progress and end-orientation while acknowledging linear chronology. For people who want to build a house in a place styled as a modernist “model neighborhood” in Mozambique in the mid-2000’s, knowledge about the future is shaped by the expectation of failure. Departing from the analytical focus on hope that dominates the literature on failed futures, Nielsen suggests that anthropologists can learn from the inventiveness that emerges out of people’s differentiation between desired and unwanted (but expected) futures by attending to the ways social transformation occurs “in non-linear and non-progressive ways”.

Further reading:

The anthropology of development and of the state at the margins of the international economic and political power structures is carrying the legacy of the idea of linear time underlying the promises of modernization. Within the experience of loss, stagnation, disillusion, and dysfunctionality caused by governance, war, environmental disasters, infrastructural decay, and ongoing colonialism, these studies are concerned with the way people strive towards attaining what they identify as an “ordinary life”. Against the trend, in this strand of literature, to focus on idleness and hope as a subject of inquiry, Nielsen’s article exemplifies work which takes the multiplicity of vernacular perspectives on the future as an impetus to rethink taken for granted understandings of time and temporal agency.

Bonilla, Yarimar, and Marisol LeBrón (eds.). 2019. Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico Before and After the Storm. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Choi, Vivian Y. 2015. “Anticipatory States: Tsunami, War, and Insecurity in Sri Lanka.” Cultural Anthropology 30 (2): 286–309.

Hage, Ghassan (ed). 2009. Waiting. MUP Academic Monographs. Melbourne: Melbourne University Publishing.

Jansen, Stef. 2015. Yearnings in the Meantime: “Normal Lives” and the State in a Sarajevo Apartment Complex. Dislocations. New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books. 

Kelly, Tobias. 2008. “The Attractions of Accountancy: Living an Ordinary Life during the Second Palestinian Intifada.” Ethnography 9 (3). Sage Publications, Ltd.: 351–76.

Khosravi, Shahram. 2017. Precarious Lives: Waiting and Hope in Iran. Contemporary Ethnography. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Piot, Charles. 2010. Nostalgia for the Future: West Africa after the Cold War. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press.

Vigh, Henrik. 2008. “Crisis and Chronicity: Anthropological Perspectives on Continuous Conflict and Decline.” Ethnos 73 (1). Routledge: 5–24. doi:10.1080/00141840801927509.

Yarrow, Thomas. 2017. “Remains of the Future: Rethinking the Space and Time of Ruination through the Volta Resettlement Project, Ghana.” Cultural Anthropology 32(4): 566-591.

Zeitlyn, David. 2015. “Looking Forward, Looking Back.” History and Anthropology 26 (4). Routledge: 381–407.

Zigon, Jarrett. 2009. “Hope Dies Last: Two Aspects of Hope in Contemporary Moscow.” Anthropological Theory 9 (3). SAGE Publications: 253–71.

Miyazaki, Hirokazu. 2006. “Economy of Dreams: Hope in Global Capitalism and Its Critiques.” Cultural Anthropology 21 (2). John Wiley & Sons, Ltd: 147–72. 

Finally, Miyazaki’s much cited article shows that there is something that connects future orientations in global finance with those of Left-wing activists and social theorists: it is the post-Cold War realization of the capitalist world order leading to human and environmental disaster while appearing unsurmountable for lack of a viable alternative, and the ensuing iterations of hope and hopelessness. By investigating a Japanese high finance engineer’s narrative about his own future-oriented agency, in which combinations of logic and trust fail to contain uncertainty, Miyazaki critically engages with research centering on hope as a subject of inquiry (rather than as a method of knowledge), arguing that it perpetuates a state of expectation without offering an exit to the system. Instead, his epistemological argument goes, we should “redefine radically and imaginatively the constitution of critique”.

Further reading:

Whereas uncertainty infuses all aspects of modern societies, the radical openness of the future is the very essence of dealings in finance. The anthropology of temporalities of capitalism is concerned with the way humans and non-humans in global finance are engaged in balancing reason and affect, while being aware of the fictionality of structure that serves to stimulate investment. Predictive tools, speculation and even magic emerge where ethics, knowledge and techniques constitute capitalist timescapes. Studying mechanisms of high finance has led Miyazaki, alongside a few other authors, to argue for an engaged approach to the anthropology of the future, committed to working towards more inclusiveness, equality and equity. 

Bear, Laura. 2020. “Speculation: A Political Economy of Technologies of Imagination.” Economy and Society 49 (1). Routledge: 1–15. 

Beckert, Jens, and Richard Bronk. (eds) 2018. Uncertain Futures: Imaginaries, Narratives, and Calculation in the Economy. Oxford: OUP Oxford.

Bloch, Ernst. 1986. The Principle of Hope. Translated by Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Holmes, Douglas R. 2013. Economy of Words: Communicative Imperatives in Central Banks. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press.

Holmes, Douglas R. 2016. “Central Bank Capitalism: Visible Hands, Audible Voices.” Anthropology Today 32 (6). John Wiley & Sons, Ltd: 3–7.

Miyazaki, Hirokazu. 2013. Arbitraging Japan: Dreams of Capitalism at the End of Finance. EBSCO Ebook Academic Collection. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.

Moeran, Brian and Timothy de Waal Malefyt (eds.). 2018. Magical Capitalism: Enchantment, Spells, and Occult Practices in Contemporary Economies, Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Rudnyckyj, Daromir. 2014. “Economy in Practice: Islamic Finance and the Problem of Market Reason.” American Ethnologist 41 (1). John Wiley & Sons, Ltd: 110–27. Zaloom, Caitlin. 2009. “How to Read the Future: The Yield Curve, Affect, and Financial Prediction.” Public Culture 21 (2): 245–68.

Theoretical Dancing, Liquidity and Positioning

Elena Burgos Martinez

International Institute of Asian Studies

Leiden University Institute for Area Studies

May 2020

In the COVID-19 hiatus, the ecoracism of environmental healing‘s rhetoric reminds us that we are not there yet. Nature is, above all, conceptually ill. Since its inception as a mode of inquiry and research subject, Nature has been travelling from one hegemon to the next. Often decontextualised and objectified by the (dis) courteous dancing involved in translating (a) Nature into standardised discourses of the human and the non-human in media, policy and academy. The pursue of a secular nature, worth the best of western teleology, has driven us away from the mutually defining aspects of the spiritual and the natural. And in doing so, we live in the illusion that a nature in third person and devoid of the human is natural thing at least and a desirable thing at best.

Anthropology has often engaged in arguing against the oversimplification of people’s natures and nature’ peoples and this, of course, includes ourselves. From the intricacies of conceptualising nature at local level (Ellen, 2020) to more-than-human agency (Kohn, 2013), contemporary environmental anthropology has allowed itself to be inspired by knowledge obtained from exchanges between researchers and inhabitants of places that have come to be defined as ‘fields’. Places whose very notion of place and space would challenge the assumed smallness of local settings. Connectivity and continuity through history, time and space has deemed the natures we seek to understand far more diverse than the translation of such ecologies into mainstreamed conversation allows for. The languages and communicative orders of nature often collude and collide (Campbell, 2020). And yet, in speaking of nature and human-animal relations, healing tropes turn a deaf ear to Earth’s complexity by engaging in a good old consecrating of nature by situating the human as separated from nature (Milton, 1999). We live in the liquidity of the amphibious worlds of current anthropology (see Pauwelussen, 2017) but somehow, we can’t keep up with communicating this beyond the posturism of academia: for a more detailed summary of the systemic perspectives of environmental anthropology see Orr, Lansing and Dove, 2015.

Perhaps we have got our own spaces wrong to begin with. I, too, started by unconsciously and implicitly situating ‘the field’ (for me that meant Eastern Indonesian islands) as a place for experimentation, a notion politically loaded (Harootunian, 2000) and subjugated to academia,  that ‘higher’ place for translating and theorising other worlds. I had, as many others, uncritically internalised some of the most pompous characteristics of academia: its historical amnesia. But how can one even begin to understand the convergence of many natures in ‘small’ Indonesian islands (be it through discourse, experiences, performances) when ‘the island’ becomes a place needing to be translated into academic ontologies? The so-called fieldwork does us (Simpson, 2006), no doubt, but what do we subsequently do to the nuances of working in the locales of knowledge?

As an urban subject since birth and a western scholar by training, my own environmental ontologies topped with the paradigms of the academic cultures where I framed my work continuously got on the way. I was not shy and positioning our work, interpretation, data and analysis within existing power structures was encouraged, at least for some of us. Positionality was an increasingly popular buzzword in anthropology, and it was specially expected from us, young foreign female scholars. While the theoretical postures of stablished academics had largely skipped this step, in the ritual of becoming it was our duty as newcomers to become by either cloning or shifting existing paradigms. But intellectual spaces were limited and a thing of themselves: a thing of times past or sometimes a question of nativism against foreign insurgency.

And so, it took some time and a lot of energy until I started calling myself an environmental anthropologist if I ever did. My PhD studies in anthropology were first categorised as ‘development anthropology’. I suspect such categorising has roots in Western teleology and neo-Weberian approaches to places like Indonesia. Sadly, such outdated categorisations of places and peoples are still healthy and thriving in academia. In anthropology’s case categories that have been long contested by contemporary scholarship ironically survive in its administrative and marketing worlds. Such technocratic and managerial approaches to regions, identities, places and peoples work as invisible machinery, stopping vernaculars of diversity well before they enter the conceptual frameworks of universities. The islands where I learnt about environmental theory are framed as ‘undeveloped’. How am I to communicate their sophistication within the limited framework of devolutionary approached? Fortunately for me, the ‘development’ label disappeared along the way in favour of a new funding trend: ‘energy and environment’. And, I was ready for that.

The assumed fragmentation of the Indonesian Archipelago had presented a new perspective on continuity that demanded new conceptualisations of space, place, religion and environment. Much of this complexity had to be translated into the linguascapes of academia and its existing literature, either by topic or by regional focus, even if it required a polite extrapolating of architectures of knowledge. The spell of institutionalised literature reviewing threw me into ready-made macro-narratives of indigeneity, nomadism, island-ness and local knowledge, fast and furious. But, against all odds, I was ready to navigate these in the auspices that the academic spaces of contemporary anthropology were also vast and diverse: they had always been constructed on the basis of encounters, intersections that threw many of us well beyond a handful of theories, dichotomies and binaries.

As it happens, while I initially run into instrumentalised narratives of oversimplified nativism and environmentalism, the invisible corners of environmental anthropology and its continuous conceptual positioning enabled by ethnographic encounters brought me to face two uncomfortable divides: that of nature and the human, and that of religion and environment . The challenging of nature/human dichotomies has recently earned a sorely deserved place in mainstreamed media. The managerial and technocratic approaches of much of environmental policy and theory continue to clash with a vast diversity of environmental ontologies across the globe. So-called global (-ised) discussions about environmental degradation tend to be constructed on the premises of three main ideologies: (when it comes to Muslim contexts) a tendency to demonise and/or victimise local socioenvironmental agency, and (in the context of Buddhism and ‘animistic religions’) to glorify a reductionist approach to indigeneity and socioecological engagements. These everlasting paradigms have long informed the designing of environmental policy and, no doubt, continue to help perpetuate (the whiteness and masculinity of) saviourism and (othered) catastrophism (McBrien, 2016). When people are framed as victims of their own environments, with local knowledge infantilised to a level that dismisses any existing agency, we all lose.

Ethnographic vignettes, or ‘aha-moments’, are often used to illustrate our points and as such they become vectors when we depart from institutionalised biases and arrive to new continuums where religion, nature and indigeneity do not require categorising into strict macro or counter narratives of being. And as such, while I was trying to find a word for ‘nature’ in the local language of the island: Baon Sama, as it were to point me in the direction of a new normativity, all I stumbled upon was strategically adapted narratives of management and preparedness (for future dangers to come) in Indonesia’s national language: Bahasa Indonesia. These adopted and adapted narratives of nature arrived hand-by-hand with disaster preparedness programmes from Jakarta, designed by international organisations (mostly western), and situated islanders as victims in and of their own environments. Nature on paper could appear an easy enterprise to approach when it is reduced to exonymic categories and narratives, but it is far from that: a five square kilometre can host more than five converging natures.

It took me many conversations unconsciously inserting exonymic paradigms of nature, socioenvironmental relations and environmental change until I realised something was very wrong. The more I focused on a rationalised and rather secular notion of ‘nature’ I had brought with me, the farther away from vernaculars of nature I drifted. The more I focused on change as an avoidable, occasional and a negative consequence of a threatening nature and failed local agency the more I missed on the continuum of island fluidity, mobility and change. And the more I sported the inherited masculinities of my own academic backgrounds through languages of environmental confrontation, war and preparedness, the more I ceased to respect ethnographic theory. And, then I stepped down of exonymic moral ecologies and listened: ‘Islam is not an option, like political parties might be, you are here now and you are in Islam, Islam is the trees and the water.’ I had to let go and give in to an Islam that was rather animated and present, fluid and seasonal. And, thus, Nain Island did not need a word for ‘nature’ because nature was everywhere, in the non-dichotomised human and nature relations, in the intertwined words of the living and the dead, in the senses. I did not need to keep on looking for nature, as an external entity, because I was also nature. Here not having a choice could not be interpreted from the perspectives of decontextualised moral systems to suggest a lack of freedom. Here not having a choice meant fully being in ‘the island’.

Muslim contexts are often categorised as inherently non environmentally friendly and undeveloped by either secular majorities or other religious majorities. This is particularly the case in places that are perceived as small by the governing powers in place. In what we could call ‘nature obscured’, the mutually defining aspects of island Islam and environmental theory call for a decolonising of othering mechanisms in academia, policy and daily opinion. There is a clear Islamophobic bias operating not only in our academic corners but also in the broad conceptualisation of environmental studies, environmental policy and mainstreamed media’s discourse touching upon environmental degradation. The Islam of so-called small islands differs from that of elites and more privileged groups, this occurrence seems to present an opportunity for those in power to question the orthodoxy of a particular context by defining it as folkloric and deviated from the norm. Islanders, thus, are stuck in the questioning of their belief systems by several actors, both relevant (as it is the case of neighbours and regional government) and irrelevant (as it is the case of foreign researchers and actors). For some, they are not orthodox enough, for other they are too orthodox to be considered. The mishaps of the inherent islamophobia in environmental studies and policy, thus, can contribute to existing discrimination at national and local level. Environmental orthodoxy requires islanders to define as animistic for an animated nature to even be considered. Meanwhile, religious orthodoxy requires islanders to avoid becoming too animated.

The reduction of Earth’s ontological diversity to a series of oversimplified narratives of being with nature and becoming nature need exorcising from the orientalist, Islamophobic and colonial paradigms inhabiting its socioenvironmental curricula and hegemony. Much of the criticising of essentialist and reductionist approaches to environmental knowledge still relies on a simplification of the very category of ‘indigeneity’ and the conceptualising of environments: as if, the world were to be divided in indigenous and non-indigenous, with two versions, two ‘natures’ and two possibilities of being. We are not as far as we think from the beginnings of systems ecology, with ‘a nature a place’ and similar forms of mapping existence and relations.

The key to all this could be that we do not really need a key. The door has always been open, and it is a portal we often cross, but we rarely narrate in its own terms (often stuck in the intersection of the linguascapes of academia and our own rituals of academic becoming). By focusing on ethnographic theory in its own terms and by letting ‘the field’ theorise for us, we can carefully remove our work from the implicit othering of frameworks designed for us to incarcerate our ‘a-ha moments’ upon returning from research. Theory stemming from ethnography offers an opportunity to decolonise and deconstruct the existing powers of mainstreamed scholarship and beyond. Let us be and let us become our own natures.


Campbell, B. (2020). ‘Communicative Orders in Collision and Collusion with Natural Resource Management Regimes in Nepal’. Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology 85(1): 79-99.

Ellen, R. (2020). Nature Wars: Essays About a Contested Concept. Environmental Anthropology and Ethnobiology Book Series. Berghahn Books: Oxford.

Harootunian, H. (2002). History’s Disquiet: Modernity, Cultural Practice, and the Question of Everyday Life. Columbia University Press: New York.

McBrien, J. (2016). Accumulating Extinction: Planetary Catastrophism in the Necrocene. Chapter in Moore, J.W. (ed.). Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism. Kairos PM Press: Oakland.

Milton, Kay. ‘Nature is Already Sacred.’ Environmental Values 8, no. 4 (1999): 437–49

Pauwelussen, A.P.; Werschoor, G.M. (2017). ‘Amphibious Encounters: Coral and People in Conservation Outreach in Indonesia’. Engaging Science, Technology, and Society 3 (2017), 292-314

Simpson, B. (2006). ‘You Don’t Do Fieldwork, Fieldwork Does You’: Between Subjectivation and Objectivation in Anthropological Fieldwork. In Hobbs, D.; Wright, R. (eds.) The SAGE Handbook of Fieldwork. SAGE.