Ethnographic theory in catastrophic times

Theodoros Kyriakides

Department of Social and Political Sciences

University of Cyprus

October 2019

I vividly remember one seminar during my time as a PhD student at the University of Manchester Department of Social Anthropology, when a prominent visiting scholar was asked by a then postgraduate student her opinion regarding the ongoing climate crisis humanity is facing. “It’s definitely important” she responded, “but people always find a way, I think.” And that was her answer, curt and succinct, which evoked a chorus of mild laughter and reaction. Another unspoken question was of course lingering in the air, that of how such an important figure of our discipline could be so dismissive of the ongoing planetary destruction we, as humankind, are facing.

Following Susana de Matos Viegas’ provocation of whether ethnographic theory can incorporate history in its workings, a relevant question may be posed of whether ethnographic theory can incorporate the present in its workings. The ‘present’ here not being the historical era in which we live, before the future and after the past, but rather the present as everyday life haunted by a backdrop of potential extinction which structures imagination and being in the world—what Isabelle Stengers labelled “catastrophic times.”

I suspect that the answer of this prominent scholar to the question of how people can live under the promise and premise of extinction could, under other circumstances, have been “I don’t know. But let’s find out.” But, then again, the question of whether one is allowed to not-know in the Anthropocene is also an important one. The imperative ‘to know’ is reflected in research agendas of prestigious funding organisations around the world, which demand that one’s research has ‘impact’ and ‘application.’ Can staple ethnographic concepts maintain relevance amid such demands of impactful research? Is there still place for an anthropology not concerned with the urgent, the current and the up-to-date?  

Anthropologists have a knack for critiquing the teleological nature of modernity. Yet, the requirement that ethnographic theory has ‘impact’ is likewise one which shoots an arrow through the cyclicality of being. Questions such as “what to do?” or “what lies ahead?” – which currently drive much ethnographic research – contain implicit teloi in themselves, since they think of social life as accelerating towards an ultimate event, one of impending planetary meltdown.

Perhaps we should follow philosopher Tim Morton’s suggestion of conceptualising climate change as a noir mystery, in which the murder has already been committed: in trying to solve the mystery, we realise we are inexplicably connected to it. Murder is not a mere event, but rather constitutes a terrain. How are people dwelling in places and spaces where planetary murder has already happened?

Walking back to my house in Nicosia tonight, I pass by two old men playing backgammon while dogs bark in the distance. In my recent visit to Tokyo, I remember walking by a family making offering to a shrine under a solemn torii gate. Ethnographic theory locates itself in this space of cyclicality: the space of social reproduction, ritual, kinship, magic, myth, and play. Indeed, the question of whether ethnographic theory can maintain relevance in catastrophic times can be rephrased as whether anthropologists are still allowed to pose questions the answers to which they do not have – or, rather, questions to which no answer is required. In catastrophic times, such questions deal with the subject of social reproduction as haunted by the backdrop of extinction. Under such mode of ethnographic inquiry, the suggestion that “people always find a way” presents itself as illuminating and relevant as any other strand of ethnographic inquiry.


Morton, Timothy. 2010. The Ecological Thought. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Stengers, Isabelle. 2015. In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism. Translated by Andrew Goffey. Open Humanities Press and Meson Press.