Anthropology of Friendship

Susan MacDougall
University of Cambridge

November 21, 2022

Friendship might be a necessary condition of anthropology. Ethnographic fieldwork relies substantially on friendship: participant observation unfolds through connections between people who share ideas and information, do favors for one another, form close bonds, and make use of one another’s presence. Ethnographic writing also relies on the trope of friendship in different ways: thick descriptions can include lyrical tributes to well-loved partners in ethnography, capture the energy of banter between peers, or record the embodied togetherness of doing nothing with other people. Anthropologists’ first-person perspectives on what they do often includes friendships, as background or foreground. In short, anthropological friendships and the anthropology of friendship are richly complex, fraught topics. It is no surprise, then, that there is quite a bit of relevant literature.  

In my own work, I find friendship rewarding to work with for two reasons. The first is that friendships are so often experimental: unlike marriages or kin relations defined by their enduring nature, they can (in many contexts) be constituted and dissolved at will, so they are spaces where people can inhabit subjectivities that are aspirational, temporary, or otherwise different. The ethnographic friendship is one compelling example of this. Through friendship, anthropologists learn about different places, languages, and ways of being. Equally, though, the experimental and educational nature of friendship is evident in relations between people of different ages, faiths, politics, professions …differences ranging from the profound to the ostensibly superficial. The genesis of a friendship, and perhaps its eventual rupture, all reveal the nuances of difference and how people live it in the context of relationships.

The second is the richness of negative affect that friendship can hold. While much friendship scholarship, especially outside of sociocultural anthropology, emphasizes its collaborative and helpful nature, friendship in popular culture is usually much more dynamic emotionally. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, for example, devote four volumes to examining the pain and betrayal of friendship. Contemporary ethnographies hint at the messiness of friendship as lived; the reading list offered here reflects a preference toward accounts that attend to this dimension of friendship.

Theoretical approaches to the concept of friendship are relatively few, especially given that the ethnographic literature is so broad. There is plenty of social theory about relations, including Marilyn Strathern’s Relations (2020) and Anthony Giddens The Transformation of Intimacy (1992), both of which are often cited in ethnographies of friendship. Kinship, closely related to but emphatically distinct from friendship, often serves as a means of defining friendship through contrast. One reason for this is that friendship has at times been treated as an extension of kinship, or at least explained using the logics of kinship. The term ‘fictive kinship,’ for instance, often describes relations equally well characterised as friendship. In one of the earlier discussions of friendship as a concept, ‘The Paradox of Friendship’ (2016), Julian Pitt-Rivers rejects this equivalence. Friendship is distinct from kinship, he argues, following logics of sharing and reciprocity better explained by the Maussian notion of the gift than kinship.

There are also theoretical treatments of friendship in contemporary anthropology, although they are not numerous. Ashley Lebner takes on the idea of friendship directly, arguing for friendship as ‘mystic’ in her article ‘The Work of Impossibility in Brazil: Friendship, Kinship, Secularity’ (2021) and the accompanying commentary. Lebner works through the ways that friends disappoint and betray trust with reference to one northern Brazilian family, meditating on the way big concepts like secularism, kinship, death, prayer, and Catholicism all play a role in shaping the ideal of friendship against which her interlocutors understand these disappointments and betrayals. While ethnographically grounded, Lebner’s thinking on friendship goes beyond the particular to make assertions about what friendship is.

An enduring perspective on friendship takes inspiration from Allan Silver’s article ‘Friendship in Commercial Society: Eighteenth-Century Social Theory and Modern Sociology’ (1990). He suggests that the notion of friendship as fundamentally based on sympathetic relations—that is, on people liking one another—emerges from capitalist societies. He draws on Scottish Enlightenment thinkers like Adam Smith and David Hume to show how these scholars saw the relegation of feelings to the private sphere as a natural and essential corollary to the market, with its cold rationalism. A thriving society allowed sentiments to flourish in their dedicated space while self-interest helpfully thrived in a different dedicated space. The idea of friendship that modern people rely on, then, is implicitly a capitalist one. 

James Carrier takes this idea further in the essay ‘People Who Can Be Friends: Selves and Social Relationships’ in the anthology The Anthropology of Friendship (1990) by Sandra Bell and Simon Coleman. Carrier argues for a specific norm of ‘Western personhood,’ anchored on the idea of an autonomous self capable of genuine affection. He outlines a future for the anthropology of friendship as an ethnographic avenue for exploring the way particular notions of personhood enable and constrain different ways of being in relationship.

Carrier draws inspiration from the notion of private friendship/public self-interest while being careful to note that this is an ideal, and not a description of how everyone in ‘Western’ contexts actually carries out their friendships. In his words, “when political-economic conditions are right and the autonomous and sentimental self becomes the norm, even people to whom it applies only poorly are likely to see themselves and their fellows in these terms.” (Carrier 1999, p. 36). In short, disappointment, loneliness, and wondering about one’s own friendlessness go hand-in-hand with this ‘Western’ model of friendship. 

A more recent volume, The Ways of Friendship (2010), edited by Amit Desai and Evan Killick, rejects the anchoring of friendship within the idealized norms of capitalism in favor of a more grounded notion of friendship, that recognizes the diversity of ways that friendships are made and maintained. In many ways this volume writes against the dominance of this notion of a friendship that is specific to a market economy, which Silver and Carrier espouse and which so often provides a starting point for analyses of friendship. The editors take pains to distance themselves from any aspirations to totalizing analysis in studying friendship, and their point is well taken, that a moral ideal articulated in eighteenth-century Scotland may not be relevant to understanding contemporary friendship around the globe. 

Irrespective of the structural backgrounds to friendship, it is very often a tumultuous relationship. The tumult can arise from the relationship itself, as two people negotiate disclosure, suspicion, and rupture. It can also arise from external circumstance, serving as a support for people navigating economic precarity, personal tragedy, or anything else to be weathered in company. Works addressing these challenges are below; they are grouped into discussions of money and inequality in friendship and trust and betrayal in friendship.

Money and inequality

Buchberger, Sonja. 2014. ‘Can Social Unequals Be Friends? Western Tourists and Their Maghrebi Hosts Negotiate Moral Ambiguity’. Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 39 (1): 37–52.

Leighton, Mary. 2020. ‘Myths of Meritocracy, Friendship, and Fun Work: Class and Gender in North American Academic Communities’. American Anthropologist 122 (3): 444–58.

Mains, Daniel. 2013. ‘Friends and Money: Balancing Affection and Reciprocity among Young Men in Urban Ethiopia’. American Ethnologist 40 (2): 335–46.

Betrayal and trust

Carey, Matthew. 2017. Mistrust: An Ethnographic Theory. University of Chicago Press.

Eramian, Laura, and Peter Mallory. 2020. ‘Unclear Endings: Difficult Friendships and the Limits of the Therapeutic Ethic’. Families, Relationships and Societies 10 (2): 359–73. 

Evaldsson, Ann-Carita. 2007. ‘Accounting for Friendship: Moral Ordering and Category Membership in Preadolescent Girls’ Relational Talk’. Research on Language and Social Interaction 40 (4): 377–404.

MacDougall, Susan. 2019. ‘Ugly Feelings of Greed: The Misuse of Friendship in Working-Class Amman’. Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 37 (2): 74-89.

Winkler-Reid, Sarah. 2015. ‘Friendship, Bitching, and the Making of Ethical Selves: What It Means to Be a Good Friend among Girls in a London School’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 22: 166–82.

While negative affects are powerful at drawing our attention, bell hooks reminds us in her book All About Love: New Visions that ‘friendship is the place where a great majority of us have our first glimpse of redemptive love and caring community’ (hooks 2016, p. 166). Within the anthropology of friendship, there are also stories of friendship as a place for redemptive love and caring community, in their lived complexity. 


Love and community

Dyson, Jane. 2010. ‘Friendship in Practice: Girls’ Work in the Indian Himalayas’. American Ethnologist 37 (3): 482–98.

Gullestad, Marianne. 1984. Kitchen-Table Society: A Case Study of the Family Life and Friendships of Young Working-Class Mothers in Urban Norway. Oslo, Norway: Universitetsforlaget. 

Mattingly, Cheryl. 2014. ‘Love’s Imperfection: Moral Becoming, Friendship, and Family Life’. Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 39 (1): 53–67.

In addition to ethnographic engagements with the thematic of love and community, there is also a small sub-genre of ethnographies that are a testament to particularly close, and fraught, relationships between ethnographers and interlocutors. Emilio Spadola’s evocatively titled article ‘Forgive Me Friend: Mohammed and Ibrahim’ (2011) and Vincent Crapanzano’s Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan (1980) wade into the complexities of friendship and obligation as they apply to participant observation. 

The anthropology of friendship, in short, is a capacious umbrella. It includes work theorising friendship as a cross cultural phenomenon, as well as ethnographic treatments that seek to understand a specific context through the lens of friendship. It also includes reflections on particular friendships as a means of engaging with something else of interest. Each of these approaches has their own life and genealogy in our discipline, often distinct from one another. It is my hunch that the relatively thin theoretical work on friendship allows us to classify it from a first-person perspective: if something looks or feels like friendship to the ethnographer, then they use this term. That may be sufficient for ethnographic work, especially since ethnographies of friendship are so clearly in agreement that this relationship can accommodate rupture, confusion, evolution, and disruption, as well as the negative and positive affects that come along with each of these phenomena. Methodologically, though, it allows ethnographers to avoid confronting questions about their own status as a friend. Conversations about ethics, for example, might look different if anthropologists were asked to reckon with the culturally specific notions of friendship that they brought into the field. To draw again on the Enlightenment notion of friendship, how does a concept of friendship built on mutual affection relieve one of obligations to help materially, for example? 

Explorations of friendship offer satisfying reading because they defy simple conclusions: they reflect the dynamism of friendship itself, with its ebbs, flows, and surprises. As Evan Killick and Amit Desai write in their edited collection, ‘friendship is interesting precisely because it evades definition’ (Desai and Killick 2010, p. 1). 

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Susan MacDougall is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Together with philosopher Lucy McDonald she is convenor of the Illuminating Friendship lecture series* at CRASSH at the University of Cambridge in the academic year 2022–23.

*Readers interested in friendship are welcome to join the lecture series either in-person in Cambridge or over zoom.

British Coalmining Communities: An Extended Reading List

The convenors are pleased to present this extended reading list alongside a review-essay ‘The Anthropology of Post-Coalonialism.

Chima Michael Anyadike-Danes
Durham University

July 15, 2022

Bostyn, Anne Marie. ‘“Ah Know Whit Like an *oor Is”: The Meaning of Time in a Scottish Lowland Community.’ Doctoral Dissertation, University of Edinburgh, 1990.

———. ‘The Work Ethic in a Scottish Town with Declining Unemployment’. In New Approaches to Economic Life: Economic Restructuring Employment and the Social Division of Labour, edited by Bryan R Roberts, Ruth Finnegan, and Duncan Gallie. Manchester: Manchester University Pres, 1985.

Bostyn, Anne Marie, and Daniel Wight. ‘Inside a Community: Values Associated with Money and Time’. In Unemployment: Personal and Social Consequences, edited by Stephen Fineman, 138. London: Tavistock, 1987.

Caulkins, D. ‘Stumbling into Applied Anthropology: Collaborative Roles of Academic Researchers’. Practicing Anthropology 17 (1 January 1995): 21–24.

Caulkins, Douglas. ‘Globalization and the Local Hero: Becoming a Small-Scale Entrepreneur in Scotland’. Anthropology of Work Review 23, no. 1–2 (2002): 24–29.

———. ‘High Technology Entrepreneurs in the Peripheral Regions of the United Kingdom’. In Economic Futures on the North Atlantic Margin: Selected Contributions to the Twelfth International Seminar on Marginal Regions, edited by Reginald Byron. Aldershot: Avebury, 1995.

———. ‘Stumbling into Applied Anthropology: Collaborative Roles of Academic Researchers’. Practicing Anthropology 17, no. 1–2 (1 January 1995): 21–24.

———. ‘The Unexpected Entrepreneurs: Small High Technology Firms and Regional Development in Wales and Northeast England’. In Anthropology and the Global Factory: Studies of the New Industrialization in the Late Twentieth Century, edited by Frances Abrahamer Rothstein and Michael L. Blim, 119–35. Bergin & Garvey, 1992.

Caulkins, Douglas, and Susan B. Hyatt. ‘Using Consensus Analysis to Measure Cultural Diversity in Organizations and Social Movements’. Field Methods 11, no. 1 (1 August 1999): 5–26.

Dawson, Andrew. ‘Ageing and Change in Pit Villages in North East England.’ Doctoral Dissertation, University of Essex, 1990.

———. Ageing and Change in Pit Villages of North East England. Parkville, Vic: Custom Book Centre, University of Melbourne, 2010.

———. ‘Ageing and Dying Radically’. Anthropology in Action, 1 December 2018, 23–33.

———. ‘Hating Immigration and Loving Immigrants: Nationalism, Electoral Politics, and the Post-Industrial White Working-Class in Britain’. Anthropological Notebooks 24, no. 1 (2018): 5–21.

———. ‘Leisure and Change in a Post-Mining Mining Town’. In British Subjects: An Anthropology of Britain, edited by Nigel Rapport, 107–20. Oxford: Berg, 2002.

———. ‘“Let’s Talk About Me – 101”: Epistemological Vanity in Anthropology and Society’. Etnofoor 33, no. 1 (2021): 73–90.

———. ‘The Dislocation of Identity: Contestation of ’Home Community in Northern England’. In Migrants of Identity: Perceptions of Home in A World of Movement, edited by Nigel Rapport and Andrew Dawson, 207–24. London: Routledge, 1998.

———. ‘The Mining Community and the Aging Body: Towards a Phenomenology of Community?’ In Realizing Community: Concepts, Social Relationships and Sentiments, edited by Vered Amit, 21–37. London: Routledge, 2002.

———. ‘The Poetics of Self-Depreciation: Images of Womanhood amongst Elderly Women in an English Former Coal Mining Town’. Anthropological Journal on European Cultures 9, no. 1 (2000): 37–51.

———. ‘Youthquake: Neoliberalism and the Ethnicization of Generation’. Advances in Anthropology 08, no. 01 (2018): 10–17.

Dawson, Andrew, and Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins. ‘“Going with the Flow” of Dementia: A Reply to Nigel Rapport on the Social Ethics of Care’. The Australian Journal of Anthropology 29, no. 2 (August 2018): 258–62.

———. ‘Post-Fordist Death: A Comparative Ethnographic Analysis of Milling and Mining in Northern England’. Death Studies 42, no. 5 (28 May 2018): 282–89.

———. ‘Post-Industrial Industrial Gemeinschaft: Northern Brexit and the Future Possible’. The Journal of Working-Class Studies 5, no. 1 (2020): 53–70.

Degnen, Cathrine. Ageing Selves and Everyday Life in the North of England: Years in the Making. Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press, 2012.

———. ‘Commemorating Coal Mining in the Home: Material Culture and Domestic Space in Dodworth, South Yorkshire’. In Materializing Sheffield: Place, Culture, Identity, Ebook. Sheffield: The University of Sheffield, 2006.

———. ‘“Knowing”, Absence, and Presence: The Spatial and Temporal Depth of Relations’. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 31, no. 3 (June 2013): 554–70.

———. ‘Minding the Gap: The Construction of Old Age and Oldness Amongst Peers’. Journal of Aging Studies 21, no. 1 (2007): 69–80.

———. ‘Mining Experience; The Ageing Self, Narrative, and Social Memory in Dodworth, England’. Doctoral Dissertation, McGill University, 2003.

———. ‘Relationality, Place, and Absence: A Three-Dimensional Perspective on Social Memory’. The Sociological Review 53, no. 4 (1 November 2005): 729–44.

———. ‘Socialising Place Attachment: Place, Social Memory and Embodied Affordances’. Aging & Society 36, no. 8 (2016): 1645–67.

———. ‘Softly, Softly: Comparative Silences in British Stories of Genetic Modification’. Focaal 48 (2006): 67–82.

———. ‘Temporality, Narrative, and the Ageing Self’. The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 25, no. 2 (2005): 50–63.

Degnen, Cathrine, and Katharine Tyler. ‘Amongst the Disciplines: Anthropology, Sociology, Intersection and Intersectionality’. The Sociological Review 65, no. 1_suppl (2017): 35–53.

Dennis, Norman, Fernando Henriques, and Clifford Slaughter. Coal Is Our Life: An Analysis of a Yorkshire Mining Community. London, New York, Tavistock Publications, 1969.

Diedrich, Richard-Michael. ‘Passages to No-Man’s-Land: Connecting Work, Community, and Masculinity in the South Wales Coalfield’. In Workers and Narratives of Survival in Europe: The Management of Precariousness at the End of the Twentieth Century, edited by Angela Procoli, 101–20. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2004.

———. The Dragon Has Many Faces: Conceptualizations of Rural Communities in North Wales and the Development of ‘Anthropology at Home’ in Britain. First Edition. Münster: Lit Verlag, 1993.

———. ‘You Can’t Beat Us! Class, Work and Masculinity on a Council Estate in the South Wales Coalfield’. Doctoral Dissertation, Universität Hamburg, 1999.

Goodwin-Hawkins, Bryonny, and Andrew Dawson. ‘Care and the Afterlives of Industrial Moralities in Post-Industrial Northern England’. The Australian Journal of Anthropology 29, no. 2 (August 2018): 222–36.

James, Allison. ‘Learning to Belong: The Boundaries of Adolescence’. In Symbolising Boundaries: Identity and Diversity in British Culture (Anthropological Studies of Britain): No 2, edited by Anthony P. Cohen. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986.

———. ‘The Structure and Experience of Childhood and Adolescence: An Anthropological Approach to Socialization’. Doctoral Dissertation, Durham University, 1983.

Jones, Stephanie. ‘“Still a Mining Community”: Gender and Change in the Upper Dulais Valley’. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Wales, Swansea, 1997.

———. ‘Supporting the Team, Sustaining the Community: Gender and Rugby in a Former Mining Village’. In Welsh Communities: New Ethnographic Perspectives, edited by Charlotte Aull Davies and Stephanie Jones, First Edition., 27–48. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2003.

Mars, Leonard. ‘Celebrating Diverse Identities: Person, Work and Place in South Wales’. In Identity and Affect: Experiences of Identity in a Globalising World, edited by John R. Campbell and Alan Rew, 251–74. Pluto Press, 2015.

———. ‘The Incorporation of a Stranger: Analysis of a Social Situation in a Welsh Valley’. The Jewish Journal of Sociology 36, no. 1 (June 1994): 19–26.

Mass Observation. People in Production: An Enquiry Into British War Production Part 1. London: John Murray, 1942.

Metcalfe, A.W. ‘The Demonology of Class: The Iconography of the Coalminer and the Symbolic Construction of Political Boundaries’. Critique of Anthropology 10, no. 1 (1 July 1990): 39–63.

———. ‘The Struggle To Be Human: The Moral Dimension of Class Struggle’. Critique of Anthropology 8, no. 2 (1 October 1988): 7–42.

Middleton, Dorothy. ‘A Social Anthropological Study of Kirkby Stephen’. Doctoral Dissertation, Durham University, 1971.

Painter, Anna, and Douglas Caulkins. ‘Work and Success in a De-Industrialized English Region’. Anthropology of Work Review 19, no. 4 (June 1999): 23–28.

Paterson, T. T., and F. J. Willett. ‘An Experiment in the Reduction of Accidents in a Colliery’. The Sociological Review a43, no. 1 (January 1951): 107–26.

———. ‘“Unofficial Strike”’. The Sociological Review a43, no. 1 (January 1951): 57–94.

Paterson, T.T. ‘Scale Factors in Coal-Mining Labour Indices’. Journal of the Operational Research Society 7, no. 4 (1956): 155–64.

Paterson, T.T., and F.J. Willett. ‘An Anthropological Experiment in a British Colliery’. Human Organization 10, no. 2 (June 1951): 19–25.

Pickard, Susan. ‘Life After a Death: The Experience of Bereavement in South Wales’. Ageing and Society 14, no. 2 (June 1994): 191–217.

———. ‘Living on the Front Line: A Social-Anthropological Study of Ageing in South Wales’. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Bristol, 1994.

———. Living on the Front Line: Social and Anthropological Study of Old Age and Ageing. 1st Edition. Aldershot: Avebury, 1995.

Roberts, Jane H. ‘Structural Violence and Emotional Health: A Message from Easington, a Former Mining Community in Northern England’. Anthropology & Medicine 16, no. 1 (April 2009): 37–48.

Sewel, John Buttifant. Colliery Closure and Social Change: A Study of a South Wales Mining Valley. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1975.

Skultans, Vieda. ‘A Study of Women’s Ideas Relating to Traditional Feminine Roles, Spiritualism and Reproductive Functions’. Doctoral Dissertation, University College of Swansea, 1972.

———. Intimacy and Ritual: A Study of Spiritualism, Mediums and Groups. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974.

———. ‘Menstrual Symbolism in South Wales’. In Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation, edited by Thomas C. T. Buckley and Alma Gottlieb, 137–60. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

———. ‘The Symbolic Significance of Menstruation and the Menopause’. Man 5, no. 4 (December 1970): 639.

———. ‘The Symbolic Significance of Menstruation and the Menopause’. In Empathy and Healing: Essays in Medical and Narrative Anthropology, 43–57. New York, NY: Berghahn Books, 2007.

Slaughter, Cliff. ‘Modern Marriage and the Roles of the Sexes’. The Sociological Review 4, no. 2 (December 1956): 213–21.

———. ‘The Strike of Yorkshire Mineworkers in May, 1955’. The Sociological Review 6, no. 2 (December 1958): 241–59.

Szurek, Jane. ‘I’ll Have a Collier for My Sweetheart: Work and Gender in a British Coal Mining Town’. Doctoral Dissertation, Brown University, 1985.

———. ‘Women in Conflict: Stress and Urbanization in a British Mining Town’. In Women and Health: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, edited by Patricia Whelehan. Granby, Mass.: Bergin & Garvey Publishers, 1988.

Taylor, R.C. ‘The Implications of Migration from the Durham Coalfield: An Anthropological Study’. Doctoral Dissertation, Durham University, 1966.

Thirlway, Frances. ‘Everyday Tactics in Local Moral Worlds: E-Cigarette Practices in a Working-Class Area of the UK’. Social Science & Medicine 170 (December 2016): 106–13.

———. ‘Explaining the Social Gradient in Smoking and Cessation: The Peril and Promise of Social Mobility’. Sociology of Health & Illness 42, no. 3 (March 2020): 565–78.

———. ‘Nicotine Addiction as a Moral Problem: Barriers to E-Cigarette Use for Smoking Cessation in Two Working-Class Areas in Northern England’. Social Science & Medicine 238 (October 2019): 112498.

———. ‘The Persistence of Memory: History, Family and Smoking in a Durham Coalfield Village’. Doctoral Dissertation, Durham University, 2015.

Thorleifsson, Cathrine. ‘From Coal to Ukip: The Struggle Over Identity in Post-Industrial Doncaster’. History and Anthropology 27, no. 5 (19 October 2016): 555–68.

———. ‘In Pursuit of Purity: Populist Nationalism and the Racialization of Difference.’ Identities, 9 October 2019, 1–17.

———. Nationalist Responses to the Crises in Europe: Old and New Hatreds. London: Routledge, 2016.

Tyler, Katharine. ‘Reflexivity, Tradition and Racism in a Former Mining Town’. Ethnic and Racial Studies 27, no. 2 (March 2004): 290–309.

———. Whiteness, Class and the Legacies of Empire. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2012.

Watson, William. ‘British and Foreign Immigrant Miners in Fife’. The Manchester School 20, no. 2 (May 1952): 203–11.

———. ‘Play Among Children in an East Coast Mining Community’. Folklore 64, no. 3 (September 1953): 397–410.

———. ‘Social Factors Affecting the Development of Children in a Coal-Mining Community in Scotland’. Master’s Thesis, Cambridge University, 1952.

———. ‘Social Mobility and Social Class in Industrial Communities’. In Closed Systems and Open Minds: The Limits of Naivety in Social Anthropology, edited by Max Gluckman, 129–57. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd Ltd, 1964.

Wight, Daniel. ‘Hard Workers and Big Spenders Facing the BRU: Understanding Men’s Employment and Consumption in a de-Industrialized Scottish Village.’ Doctoral Dissertation, University of Edinburgh, 1987.

———. Workers Not Wasters: Masculinity, Social Status and Respectability in Central Scotland. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994.

Wilson, Constance Shirley. ‘The Family and the Neighbourhood in a British Community’. Master’s Thesis, Cambridge University, 1953.

The Anthropology of Post-Coalonialism

The convenors are pleased to present this review-essay alongside an extended reading list of literature on coalmining communities.

Chima Michael Anyadike-Danes

Durham University

July 15, 2022

British social anthropologists have long suffered from “an uncertainty concerning the legitimacy (even the possibility) of undertaking anthropology in Britain” (Rapport 2002, 4). Despite such concerns, anthropologists have spent more than seventy years studying Britain’s coalminers and their kin and using the data gathered to conceive of the British coalmining community. This was initiated by Veronica Tester of Mass Observation – an English organisation which Bronislaw Malinowski once described as “a nation-wide intelligence service” (Malinowski 2012). It was set-up in 1937 by Tester, a maverick anthropologist, a surrealist poet, and a documentary filmmaker to study and document daily life in England producing a native anthropology. In 1942, Tester travelled to Kent to study striking miners and their families (Mak 2015; Mass Observation 1942). This was only the beginning, as in the 1940s and 50s two other groups of anthropologists decided to study coalmining. T.T. Paterson and his research group, F.J. Gillett, William Watson and Constance Shirley Wilson, followed swiftly on the heels of Tester by studying miners in Fife, Scotland (Paterson and Willett 1951a; 1951b; 1951c; Watson 1952; 1953; 1964). However, this group’s work, like Tester’s, had minimal impact on the broader field of anthropology. Instead, it was a group of two anthropologists, Fernando Henriques and Cliff Slaughter, and a sociologist, Norman Dennis, whose study of a West Yorkshire mining community in the 1950s was to make a marked impact (Dennis, Henriques, and Slaughter 1969; Slaughter 1956; 1958). In Coal is our Life, their monograph, the trio portrayed their field site as England in miniature. They argued that for miners and their families the labour process defined everything from gender relations to leisure to perceptions of the future. It was in essence a total social fact. A powerful, evocative text, Coal is our Life remains the most influential social scientific work to have been published about British coalmining.

Perhaps the ease with which anthropologists of Britain turned areas where coal was mined into coalmining communities that they could research owes something to how they have been othered. Jane Nadel-Klein surveying representations of groups British and Irish natives who were denied coevalness suggests that owing to their labour process miners were represented as a distinct, inferior race (Nadel-Klein 2003, 117). This is an important observation for such a discourse had long existed in Britain. Indeed, Andrew Metcalfe traces the othering of the miners from the seventeenth century onwards demonstrating that they were classified by those members of the British middle and upper classes to the right of the political spectrum as Untermensch (Metcalfe 1990). The left’s response was equally problematic as they celebrated miners’ successes at establishing a proto-welfare state by reducing them to an archetype – the ideal proletarian (Metcalfe 1990).

While it may seem unnecessary to know something of how anthropologists and others have historically portrayed British coalmining areas, this could not be further from the truth. I think it worth looking at how anthropologists in Britain have theorised and written about the “coalonial” period if only for the insight that it offers into post-coalonial Britain. The “post-coalonial” is a term that I have coined, inspired by the historian On Barak’s concept of “coalonialism” (Barak 2015).  For Barak, coalonialism refers to a specific time period in which British imperial expansion and industrialization were entangled (Barak 2020). Coal in this frame is no mere fuel because it engenders socio-cultural and political reorganisation, aiding in the rise of new forms of racialisation, the reformulation of various communities, and proletarianization. To my mind, the post-coalonial is a heuristic. It allows for an enquiry not just into forms of social-cultural and political organization that exist after post-imperial Britain’s abandonment of coalmining, but scrutinises and reconsiders the appropriateness of the anthropological concept of the coalmining community and asks what work is this analytic performing.

As even within a limited post-coalonial period there is a considerable body of literature, this review-essay centres on the scholarship of Andrew Dawson, Cathrine Degnen, Katharine Tyler, and Cathrine Thorleifsson. It is these anthropologists who have continued to attend to developments in post-coalonial British life. In particular I discuss, present, and analyse their work through the lenses of aging and intergenerational conflict and belonging and community. To my mind these frames seem particularly pertinent for anthropologists analysing life in Britain’s post-coalonial coalmining areas.

Photo taken by the author

Aging and Intergenerational Conflict

Fordist mass manufacturing was characterised by an obsession with standardisation, efficiency, and predictability, but coalmining was the diametric opposite (Nye 2013). Mining’s output was, for longest time, unpredictable and resulted in miners entering into ontologically complex relations with the earth (Dawson 2002a). Hence the successful extraction of coal was referred to as “winning” coal. Unpredictability resulted in a high mortality rate and surviving to retirement meant the possibility of developing various respiratory diseases (Dawson 2002b). However, it was not just this unpredictability around mortality that made anthropologists take an interest in the areas of Britain where coalmining occurred, but also how they dealt with aging. For instance, both William Watson and Allison James studied children’s socialisation (James 1986; Watson 1953). While earlier anthropological work had focused on children in British mining areas, in what follows I describe how at the start of the post-coal era there was a turn amongst scholars like Andrew Dawson and Cathrine Degnen towards studying and theorising about the elderly. More recently, there has been an attentiveness to inter-generational relations.

Andrew Dawson began his ethnographic study in Ashington, a settlement in Northumbria, in 1985 just after the conclusion of the 1984 miner’s strike which was a seminal event in the history of British organised labour. It was the moment that Mrs Thatcher used the state’s monopoly on “legitimate” violence to permanently break the nation’s trade union movement. It was thus the beginning of a period of great upheaval and change in Britain’s history of production.  A native of Ashington, and from an extended family of miners, his particular focus was on the elderly and their social clubs. Like his near contemporary, Susan Pickard, who studied aging in the valleys of South Wales in the early 1990s, Dawson’s publications from this phase of his career were centred on understanding how his elderly interlocutors were dealing with the changes that Thatcherism had wrought (Dawson 2002a; Pickard 1994; 1995). Indeed, in a particularly important essay that drew upon anthropological scholarship on the phenomenology of the body and ritual, Dawson highlighted how amongst the elderly incidents of what might be termed psychological and physiological decline led to a kind of out-of-body sensation and a disassociated identity akin to Cartesian dualism (Dawson 2002b). This ongoing experience of losing control of one’s body served as the basis for communitas and biosociality as inhabitants bonded over maladies like incontinence and dementia. They also actively produced and performed art that reflected these realities and allowed for them to be shared with their fellows (Dawson 2000). Dawson contended that bonding in such a manner was possible because a combination of the labour process, the exigencies of cooperating to provide aid to one another, and geography had already created in mining areas like Ashington an identity that prized and honoured collectivism over individuality (Dawson 1998). The latter was a quality strongly associated by his interlocutors with both the middle-classes and southern England.

Several years after Dawson began his work, his dissertation inspired Cathrine Degnen to spend five years conducting ethnographic research with the elderly in the South Yorkshire coalmining town of Dodsworth. What characterised her own early work was a focus on how memory, temporality, and notions of age itself were the products of socialisation (Degnen 2007). In an article that appeared in The Sociological Review, Degnen argued that memory talk was a persistent feature of life in Dodsworth (Degnen 2005b). Degnen described, in a fashion reminiscent of Kathleen Stewart’s description of West Virginia coal country (Stewart 1996), how residents of Dodsworth were able to reveal the webs of relations that connected them to other people and places in the village through constantly shifting temporal frames between the past and the present. For Degnen, drawing upon Timothy Ingold’s notion of landscape (Ingold 2000), this was not just a case of memories merely overlaying Dodsworth’s existing geography; instead Dodsworth was a specific and ongoing “villagescape” produced through these relations. Moreover, this memory work with its shifting temporal frames was a particularly important hallmark of the conversational style of her elderly interlocutors (Degnen 2005a). They deployed it along with information others might deem irrelevant and with background information that they decontextualised in order to create a particularly ageless self. While Dawson had briefly highlighted intergenerational conflict in his work, it is in Degnen’s articles that this starts to come more obviously to the fore, as she contends that talk of this sort tends to create intergenerational friction, because it baffles younger people whose sense of temporality, she asserts, is very different.

The issue of intergenerational conflict within coal settlements is central to Katharine Tyler’s work on whiteness, class, and the forgetting of Britain’s imperial past (Tyler 2012). In the early 2000s, Tyler conducted a multi-sited study in Leicestershire that included as one of its sites the former industrial settlement of Coalville. Her particular focus during six months in the town was twofold: firstly, to understand how racism was expressed in a working class area (as opposed to a middle-class one) and secondly, to understand anti-racism amongst white, working-class youth (Tyler 2004). Tyler’s study was motivated in part by her dismay at white middle-class attitudes that demonised the white working-classes as the most racist and xenophobic population in England rather than seeing older members of such populations as merely being more likely to deploy openly racist language. Here, the post-coalonial settlement plays a particular role as an idealised working-class area. Drawing on the work of scholars like Marilyn Strathern and Jeanette Edwards, Tyler argued that the profound onto-epistemological shock resulting from deindustrialisation’s upending of the social order had created a discursive opportunity for younger members of Coalville’s community to challenge the openly racist narratives propounded by their older relatives. Tyler’s work is of profound importance because of its attempt to not only understand how racism and xenophobia were classed and imbued with different significances by different generations.

More recently, Andrew Dawson has returned to the question of aging particularly as it related to intergenerational conflict (Dawson 2018b). He did so at a particularly politically charged time in Britain due to Brexit, austerity, the rise of Corbynism, and successive Conservative governments. According to pollsters, the last of these had largely been as a result of Britain’s aging population. Indeed, in some analyses the only generational segment of the population the Tories could rely upon were the elderly. This led to commentators representing intergenerational conflict as a hallmark of this particular period in British history and to suggest that Labour’s left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, might be swept to power on the back of what they termed a “youthquake.” Dawson carefully drew these threads together and argued that in Ashington one of the consequences of austerity politics and the immiseration it had wrought was that some of the elderly increasingly regarded the town’s youth as non-people. For his elderly interlocutors, personhood had very much been linked to employment and the labour process. Specifically, there had been a valorisation of coal-mining labour because of its danger and difficulty. However, the youth of Ashington lacked the opportunity for such employment; instead, they faced a world of menial labour, and it was in such contexts they were liminal beings, unable to complete the rite of passage, as their elders saw it, and emerge as adult human beings. Instead, they remained as others.

Photo taken by the author

Belonging and Community

The longstanding portrayal of British coal-mining areas as isolated and homogenous is belied by the complex coalonial histories of migration, often from the Celtic nations. However, the perception of homogeneity and isolation have often led anthropologists to examine their social reproduction. In the early 1950s, William Watson explored the factors which led to migrant miners being assimilated into a mining area in Fife. More recently, Stephanie Jones explored how rugby had come to replace mining as a central element of identity formation for the inhabitants of a pit village in the South Wales valleys  (Jones 2003; Watson 1952). In the last decade academics and journalists have travelled many roads, conducted endless interviews, and spilled much ink all in the cause of understanding Britain’s coal-mining settlement’s ideas about belonging. This renewed interest in people that had come to perceive themselves as overlooked and unheard derived from a desire to understand the increasing opposition to European immigration, the growing support for Britain’s right-wing parties like UKIP and the Conservatives, and the Brexit vote. Why, such commentators asked, were the purportedly archetypal proletarians abandoning the Labour Party and left-wing values?

Just as the 1990s came to a close and New Labour was finding its footing, Dawson published “The Dislocation of Identity: Contestation of ‘Home’ Community in Northern England” (1998). It is a powerful and perceptive essay exploring how recent developments in Ashington were revealing of changing notions of home. He paid particular attention to a contest between different groups within the community over who would be providing an oral account of the village’s travails for posterity. Despite the seeming homogeneity of the mining town, he described the contest as revealing barely disguised antagonisms. On one side, a middle-class former principal who had resided in the village his whole life and was an active participant in historical preservation; on the other, a retired miner who had worked globally. At the moment in which a member of the middle-class might succeed in defining what constituted the mining community, Dawson detailed how the miner and his supporters mobilised various arguments. These included the idea that to be a working-class miner was to be part of an internationalist, global community of the proletariat united in the struggle against capital.

If the subject of Dawson’s analysis had been conflicts over the definition of community, Cathrine Degnen took a very different tack in an extremely thoughtful article (Degnen 2013). She argued that what defined the mining community of Dodsworth was “knowing” (it seems that this kind of knowing is also related to the notion of consciousness). Being present in the village for decades and thus being entangled in the web of relations that constituted its landscape made one know the community and thus made one part of it. Degnen suggests that knowing as she used the term was “historically contingent, and tied to socioeconomic transformation, shifts in forms of sociability, changes in housing tenure, and changes in government infrastructures” (Degnen 2013, 568). Degnen’s description of belonging as deriving from temporal depth was similar to an argument that Leonard Mars has made in relation to mining communities (Mars 1994; 2015). True to his membership of the Manchester school, Mars deployed an extended case study analysis to explain how a Scottish Jewish doctor residing in an isolated mining area in the South Wales valleys eventually came to be regarded by the villagers as not just a mere professional, but part of the community. Specifically, he attended to the web of relations the doctor had forged over the course of his fifty years of service, in particular emphasising the value villagers had placed on the doctor living among them as an equal, rather than either playing at lord of the manor or commuting to the village from a larger population centre.

Katharine Tyler, Degnen’s contemporary and occasional collaborator, had very different concerns with respect to belonging in her 2012 monograph Whiteness, Class and the Legacies of Empire. She was interested in exploring the various ways in which in Coalville, British Asians were continually designated as others, denying the imperial histories that explained their presence and resisting the possibility that were anything but eternally other. Attending to some of the town’s residents’ preference for speaking about the community’s history, Tyler argued that Coalville’s production of community and belonging was tied to ideas about place and respectable ways of inhabiting it, and in this respect it was no different than the middle-class communities she had also researched. Naturally, the specifics of Coalville’s ideas about community and belonging were at odds with how the middle-class imagined such concepts, and also in opposition to the simplistic narrative of white backlash that has come to dominate the British media’s coverage of ethnic relations in such areas. With respect to Coalville, Tyler emphasised that residents’ unwillingness to understand the role of coalonialism in creating relations between the Asians and Britain.  A further complication to the possibility of assimilation to respectability was British-Asians’ entrepreneurialism as found in their restaurants and corner shops. For working-class residents, this was seen as embodying middle-class values. British-Asians were thus intersectional others marked off as outsiders to the working-class environs not just because of their ethno-racial heritage but because accumulating capital in this way was regarded as anything but respectable. 

While Tyler observed that coalmining was not the only industry in Coalville, she also argued that it was the only one that was central to community identity. In this respect, what Tyler was framing as a community identity was similar to Doncaster which Cathrine Thorleifsson spent four months studying in the 2010s as part of a muti-sited project investigating the rise of far right populism in the UK, Hungary, and Norway (Thorleifsson 2016a). Thorleifsson’s argument drew on the concept of post-Fordist affect as formulated by Lauren Berlant and employed by Andrea Muehlebach (Berlant 2007; Muehlebach 2011). Essentially, she contended that in Doncaster, post-Fordist affect manifested in the form of a nostalgia for a lost community and economy based on coalmining which rendered some locals particularly susceptible to claims by the far-right party UKIP that if elected they would implement a form of protectionist, resource nationalism which would see them reintroduce British coal as a fuel source (Thorleifsson 2016b). The corollary of this was that by doing so they would bring back the communities of practice and ways of life that were entangled with it. While such arguments have become convincing to some, Thorleifsson has observed, as Dawson did, that there exist multiple perspectives about community which challenge such essentialist narratives of homogeneity. Indeed, in other accounts, Doncaster was presented as a long site of multiculturalism. Promoters of such a view cited, for example, the longstanding presence of large Roma and traveller communities in the town.

Slightly after Thorleifsson published her work on Doncaster, Andrew Dawson returned to the question of community and belonging in Britain’s coalmining communities. In one article, focusing on the question of the white working-class and their attitude to immigrants in the wake of the 2017 election, he suggested that their attitudes were considerably more nuanced than media coverage would suggest (Dawson 2018a). Specifically, he contended that while immigration was seen by some of his interlocutors as undercutting the bargaining power of Britain’s working class, the work ethic that migrants displayed was regarded by proponents of such arguments as laudable. Consequently, he claimed that some of his interlocutors hated the phenomena of mass migration, not immigrants themselves. Reframed slightly, using the sorts of arguments that Degnen, Mars, and Tyler have made, Dawson was suggesting that immigrant populations were able to become known and regarded as respectable through their respectable forms of labour. However, this was not Dawson’s only intervention. Concurrently, he collaborated with Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins on a series of articles exploring ideas around the theoretical terrain that Thorleifsson had discussed, namely care and post-Fordist affect, and their implications for community and belonging (Goodwin-Hawkins and Dawson 2018; Dawson and Goodwin-Hawkins 2018; 2020). The pair contrasted their longstanding field sites, the mining village of Ashington, where Dawson had worked since 1985, and the Lyng Valley weaving communities, where Goodwin-Hawkins had been conducting research since the early 2010s (Goodwin-Hawkins 2012). Pointing to the way the labour process associated with the weaving industry had engendered an ethic of individualism in the Lyng Valley as compared to the solidarity long associated with coalmining, they argued this had ongoing implications for how residents of both communities approached belonging, and so could not merely be reduced to nostalgia. Identifying Ferdinand Tönnies as a forerunner of modern affect theory, they characterised this phenomenon as post-industrial Gemeinschaft. They suggested that it was this, not nostalgia, which explained these communities’ willingness to vote for Brexit.

Photo taken by the author


Recent anthropological work on Britain’s coalmining settlements has produced a variety of insights that have mobilised and extended theory in some unforeseen ways particularly around issues of aging and belonging. In conclusion, I offer readers some material for consideration by making three points on the subjects of race, the unit of analysis, and the notion of post-coalonialism.

With respect to race, I believe that Tyler’s deployment of ideas from whiteness studies was of great value and can be fruitfully extended. Moreover, it points to the necessity of anthropologists of mining areas considering how race, class, and coalonial pasts are entangled and occasionally ignored. It is inarguable that such questions have gained additional salience in Britain because of the recent work of historian Norma Gregory and her collaborators. They broke new ground by researching and highlighting the role that Black miners played in Britain. This was a topic that has gone unaddressed in the more than seventy years that anthropologists have been studying mining communities in Britain. Indeed, beyond the work of Dawson, Tyler, Thorleifsson, and Mars, it seems that the last time questions of race and ethnicity in Britain’s mining areas was addressed by an anthropologist was the 1950s when William Watson looked at the experiences of Eastern Europeans working in a Scottish mine (Watson 1952). Moreover, the presence of Black miners in Britain, the international bonds of union brotherhood, and the exporting of miners from Britain to other mining locations across the globe suggest that the image of the working-class mining community as a hermetically sealed settlement lacking in coevalness can and should be dismissed out of hand.

                Another important point that arises from examining these studies is the unit of analysis. Throughout this piece, I have mentioned the phrase coal-mining communities, but a post-coalonial lens reveals how in many ways such a term only serves to obscure some profound differences in the modes of production between the places discussed. In some of these settlements, there was no other industry while in others employment opportunities were considerably more varied. Furthermore, if we are to follow Dawson and Goodwin-Hawkins’ admirably innovative lead with respect to post-industrial industrial gemeinschaft then greater attentiveness must be paid to the labour process. As William Watson discussed in his early account of coalminers migrating from Lanarkshire to Fife the nature of coalmining in these two areas was very different (Watson 1952). In one area the height of the tunnel required inching forward on hands and knees while in the other one could stand upright. One would expect that if nothing else this engendered very different relations between miners. Finally, it is worth scrutinising chains of production and supply which should also lead to a consideration of what it would mean for a given place to become post-coalonial. If one seeks to imagine a globally post-coalonial future, it is unlikely to look like Britain’s present where post-coalonialism is somewhat illusory, resting as it does upon an outsourcing of production and denying the continued relevance of coalonialism for how people in Britain’s coal-mining areas lead their lives. Indeed, one might ask if Britain has ever truly been post-coalonial, or have at both an analytical level and a material one analyses that emphasise the temporal specificity of terms like coalonialism failed to enquire into how coal constitutes the structure and organisation of specific spaces.

Chima Michael Anyadike-Danes is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Durham University.


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Botanical Kinships: A Tangled Taxonomy

Amy Leia McLachlan

University of Chicago & Field Museum of Natural History

May 16, 2022

Anthropological attention to the vital and varied ways in which human and botanical life make one another is just one among many modes of noticing that have lately coalesced around questions of botanical kinships. Research into plants’ capacities for sensing and communicating among the biological sciences and ecology have become part of public imaginaries of plant-relatedness. Covid lockdowns and climate anxiety have apartment-dwellers identifying as proud new “plant parents.” A sense of indebtedness to, and entanglement with, plant beings is lively in our ever stranger present, but it is no stranger to the anthropological archive.

That archive is full of plant kin whose own strangeness is worth revisiting. Enthusiasms for newly sensitized attention to our plant kin can make it easy to miss the botanical relations that have been with us all along (new kin always steal the spotlight, as older siblings everywhere can attest). Our well-rooted anxieties, grief, and hopes for emergent relations to the plant beings that give us the worlds in which we live can obscure the family resemblances and half-suppressed histories that already inform our most utopian and dystopian speculations about possible futures.

This list is part of a speculative genealogy of plant relations in the anthropological family tree. Like so many of our plant kin, it approaches reproduction and relatedness through multiple modes and methods. It is informed by my ethnographic work and apprenticeship with Indigenous Uitoto “plant-workers” (cultivators, conjurers, and healers) in the Colombian Amazon, and by the archive of Amazonian ethnography. It aims to recognize resemblances rather than consolidate lineages, and to wonder about the botanical tendencies and tendings to that persist even in hostile ground—who else but kin could be so familiar, so strange, so intransigent even in their generosity?

Borrowing a mode of attention from the histories of both botanical and anthropological kin-counting, this reading list is offered in the form of a queer taxonomy: a tangled, four-part accounting of modes of seeing botanical kinships in the anthropological archive. It includes ancestors and cousins from related lines (philosophical, historical, and political). These lists trace an unabashedly illegitimate genealogy of anthropology’s botanical relations through four lenses:

1. Seeing kinship in plants: gender and genealogy in botanical knowledge production

2. Seeing plants in kinship: botany and gender in genealogical reckoning

3. Seeing plants as kin: unmaking natures and the politics of botanical sympathy

4. Seeing kin as plants: unfamiliar kinships in the altered present.

Seeing kinship in plants: gender and genealogy in botanical knowledge production

Linnaeus, the father of binomial nomenclature, was a paterfamilias in several senses. In his homelife he was the progenitor of seven children; in his public life, he engendered conventions for naming all of our non-human kin on an order of patrilineal reason that remains hidden in plain sight. (That logic called my attention in the midst of a Colombian botanical garden: “Nombre y apellido”—“both their given and family names,” I once overheard a docent instructing a clutch of budding kindergarten botanists, following her like ducklings through the flower beds). Linnaeus’ classificatory system not only borrowed the form of Swedish fixed patrilineal naming conventions (then only a generation deep–Linnaeus had adopted for himself the name of a linden tree on his family’s farm); it also imposed an order of classificatory reason on our non-human kin based on the conventionality or deviance of their “genital” morphologies and “marital arrangements,” as Londa Schiebinger powerfully argues.

Schiebinger’s (1993) history of the “private life of plants” offers a compelling reading of the transformation of European conceptions of the nature and politics of sexual difference as these were translated into Enlightenment botanical knowledge, from Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae (1735), through Erasmus Darwin’s The Loves of the Plants (1789). In offering an order capable of incorporating all possible botanical difference, Pratt argues, the logic of the Linnaean system was a key technology in the production of imperial natural history and planetary imaginaries (1992).

(Elsewhere, Schiebinger [2005] develops an equally fascinating “agnotology” of the erasure of plant knowledge amid Caribbean colonial botanical exchanges. Her article on the history of abortifacient uses of the “peacock flower,” and the production of ignorance around those uses, traces the non-reproduction of knowledge in the production of colonial botany, on one hand, and the reproduction of botanical technologies of non-reproduction among colonized and enslaved women in the Caribbean, on the other).

Among anthropology’s botanical ancestors, Romantic conceptions of culture are some of the most important (and uncannily revenant). Herder’s description of the “vegetable kingdom of our Earth” (1784) articulates a concept of human culture as of a kind with plant natures, and of both as the children of a beneficent and “salutary parent” (48) who had made a world fed by the “fertile mould” of plant life: “because we cannot eat gold; and because the smallest edible plant is not only more useful to us, but more perfectly organized, and nobler in its kind, than the most costly gem”(48). Goethe’s “metamorphosis of plants” (in both its poetic and scientific versions) is an ode to the affections of and for plants that lets us see the perfection of creation in all our parallel forms:

The plant-child, like unto the human kind—
Sends forth its rising shoot that gathers limb
To limb, itself repeating, recreating,
In infinite variety (2009 [1709]: 2)

The poetics of these accounts have their persistent appeal in the face of abstracted sciences of plant life, but their afterlives include massive and lethal violence. Kosek (2006), for instance, traces the shadow kinships of Romantic and vitalist botanies with eugenics and racialized formations of nature-knowing in the US. His Understories offers a genealogy of environmentalist and conservation movements in the US descended from these ancestors, and their “racialized notions of purity and pollution” (144).

McKay’s Radical Gardening (2011), traces a similarly dark genealogy: the close kinship between Romantic vitalisms and right-wing organicisms, including far-right eugenics movements and Nazi garden aesthetics. His chapter “Organics, Left and Right”, “illustrate[s] that radical gardening can be dangerous and regressive as well as potentially progressive and liberatory.” (43) (The point couldn’t be clearer, as he quotes Nazi garden architect Albert Kraemer: ‘Only our knowledge of the conditions of the home soil and its plant world (plant sociology) enable and oblige us to design blood-and-soil rooted gardens.’” (61))

Seeing plants in kinship: botany and gender in genealogical reckoning

Claims about plant reproduction across the natural and social sciences have encoded politics of gender and race, including patrilineal politics that organize both. Those politics have also organized anthropological reckoning with kinship in its classical and critical modes. Among our disciplinary ancestors, botanical figurations articulated central disciplinary concerns. Indeed, in the formulation of anthropology’s foundational concern with kinship—whether in functionalist, structural-functionalist, structuralist, economic, or interpretive modes—we find botanical kin and kinds everywhere entangled.

A genealogy of the botanical figures and figurations that informed our disciplinary ancestors might include the taytu crops that were the locus of Malinowski’s “native point of view” (1935)—a point of view that was one trained on plant life:

Let us now concentrate on what is happening underground, where the taytu tuber is coming to life again to begin its new cycle. We shall have to watch its progress through native eyes; for, on the one hand, I am not sufficiently well acquainted with the botany of the Trobriand crops to give objective facts, and, on the other, it is the native point of view which really matters to us. (139)

That genealogy might also include the Dobu yams that helped configure Lévi-Strauss’ (1969) elementary structures of kinship:

Thus [in Dobu life] yams are real persons, for to be without them is to be orphaned. When all is said and done, the economic and social structure of the group does justify the restrictive definition of itself as a community of tubers and cultivators. (47, with reference to Fortune 1963)

In the philosophical branches of our discipline’s kinship trees, plants have been indispensable if invisible interlocutors, as Marder has argued. In dialogue with Irigaray (2016), Marder pursues a course “through vegetal being” to reflect on and revive our own vegetal inheritances, along with possibilities for expansively vegetal “sexuations”:

How do you propose to think about the sexuality of plants? What is its relevance to human sexuate difference? […] Without a doubt, sexuate difference belongs to the phenomenon of embodiment and to life itself. […] Does the vegetal world open sexuate difference, through which we attempt to encounter it, to sexuate differences that are more diverse still than what Freud referred to as the ‘polymorphous perversity’ of the human infant? (Irigaray & Marder 2016: 115)

Seeing plants as kin: unmaking natures and the politics of botanical sympathy

A longing for lush vegetal communion drives historically fringe and increasingly authoritative sciences of the phenomenology of plants. In their cult counter-culture classic (and its unmissable film adaption, with soundtrack by Stevie Wonder), Tompkins & Bird (1973) set out to prove that “plants can read your mind.” Using an array of technical and attentional metrics, they claim a natural sympathy and psychic kinship between plants and humans. The cheerful tone of their program, however, lurches repeatedly toward the uncanny—as laboratories become crime scenes, and optimistically gentle attunements turn to interrogations.

Further from the disavowed margins of new age science, recent work in phytoneurology has advanced a similar assertion that human and botanical being are phenomenologically of a kind. Evidence of the sensory, communicative, cooperative, and mnemonic capacities of plants work against the histories of disinheritance that define human exceptionalism (Gagliano et al. 2014; Yokawa et al. 2017).

Reckoning with the debts we owe to plant ancestors, Myers (2016) has offered the concept of the “Planthropocene” to reminds us that we live in the world that plants have made. Our lives are conditioned on the gift of a breathable atmosphere, and that atmosphere is one made, just as we must understand ourselves to be, through the labour of plants.

Those makings have not been one-way, however, and our contemporary plant kin include beings that we have altered beyond recognition. Haraway and Tsing work with the “Plantationocene” as a name for the “historical set of conjunctures” that comprise those remakings (with Mittman 2019). The uncanny edge of post-natural botanical relations charges the radioactive tumbleweeds that Masco has described rolling across nuclear test sites in New Mexico (2004), and the lonely Phragmite reeds growing in Solvay waste on the shores of Onandaga Lake (as described by Kimmerer 2013). Industrial, military, and chemical histories have remade our plant kin, even as those kin continue to sustain us. The always present potential curative powers of plants both invite (as Hayden (2003) describes of bioprospecting in Mexico) and mitigate (as Chudakova (2017) argues of “pharmapoeisis” in Siberia) vectors of value extraction in disparate ecologies and yet familiar ways. “Kartoshka,” little potato, is key to “surviving post-socialism,” Ries (2009) tells us, just as the intrepid “space zucchini” (described by Battaglia [2014]) and ancestral-future corn (dreamed of by Becker [2012]) soothe our imaginations of livable futures beyond this planet.

Seeing kin as plants: unfamiliar kinships in the altered present

Ethnographic translations of Amazonian kinships with plant persons have long taught us that plants are not an inert resource or passive object of ecological or extractive accounting. Amazonian kinships sustain and are sustained by deep histories of care and mutual making between human and botanical persons. “Plant kin” (Miller 2019) make human kin and remake human kinships against histories of displacement, devastation, and reinvention. They appear as the generative substance, speech, and gifts of ancestral kin in work by Candre & Echeverri (1996), Echeverri (2000), McCallum (2001), Londoño Sulkin (2012), and Rival (1998), among others. In a Mozambican context, Archambault (2016) invites us to “take love seriously” in relation to plants. 

Plant kin invite, and invite us into, the relations of love and grief that Butler (2005) defines as the constitutive undoings of attachment. Potawatomi Ethnobotanist Robin Wall Kimmerer has hopefully suggested that grief and love for the kin we have unmade are also openings to repair: “If grief can be a doorway to love, then let us all weep for the world we are breaking apart so we can love it back to wholeness again” (2013: 359).

Archambault (2016) considers what it means to “take love seriously” in relation to plants. Potawatomi Ethnobotanist Robin Wall Kimmerer has hopefully suggested that grief and love for the kin we have unmade are also openings to repair: “If grief can be a doorway to love, then let us all weep for the world we are breaking apart so we can love it back to wholeness again” (2013: 359).

Murphy (2017) reminds us, however, that neither love nor repair are ever that simple. In her articulation of a concept of “alterlife”, she tells us: “Our relations are not just supportive, they can also be injurious and toxic. […] Within the condition of alterlife the potential for political kinship and alter-relations comes out of the recognition of connected, though profoundly uneven and often complicit, imbrications in the systems that distribute violence” (120). “Alterlife” in Murphy’s conception lets us see the complexity of our responsibilities to those plant kin whose bodies and lives we’ve altered amid the same histories that have unequally altered all of us.

Holding together the ways in which we have made and been made by plant kin, the ways we have been remade in colonial, industrial, and chemical economies—all of us, unequally—along with the possibility that every alteration is also an opening to ethical re-making, what kin-making work is there to be done? Which of our kin might be worth losing, as Sharpe (2016) asks us to contemplate, and which modes of kin-counting are worthy of our suspicion (Clarke & Haraway 2018)? Which histories, futures, and uncanny adjacencies can we continue to feed and be fed by? Which among the worlds just now coming into view might hold the possibility of curing existing entanglements, and of fostering new ones?

Amy Leia McLachlan is a Social Sciences Teaching Fellow at the University of Chicago, and a researcher at the Field Museum of Natural History.


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Battaglia, Debbora. 2014. “Diary of a Space Zucchini: Ventriloquizing the Future in Outer Space.” Platypus: The Castac Blog. Link

Becker, Nanobah. 2012. “The 6th World” (Futurestates TV Series, S3:E6). Link

Butler, Judith. 2005. Giving an Account of Oneself. New York: Fordham University Press. Link

Chudakova, Tatiana. 2017. “Plant matters: Buddhist medicine and economies of attention in postsocialist Siberia.” American Ethnologist. 44(2): 341-354. Link

Clarke, Adele E. & Haraway, Donna. 2018. Making Kin Not Population. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press. Link

Darwin, Erasmus. 2002 [1791, 1789, 1803]. Cosmologia: A Sequence of Epic Poems in Three Parts Comprising : Part One, The economy of vegetation (1791): Part Two, The loves of the plants (1789): Part Three, The temple of nature (1803). Sheffield: Stuart Harris.

Candre, Hipólito & Echeverri, Juan Alvaro. 1996. Cool Tobacco, Sweet Coca: Teachings of an Indian Sage from the Colombian Amazon. Devon: Themis Books. Link

Echeverri, Juan Alvaro. 2000. “The first love of a young man: salt and sexual education among the Uitoto Indians of Lowland Colombia” in The Anthropology of Love and Anger: The Aesthetics of Conviviality in Native Amazonia. Overing, Joanna & Passes, Alan, eds. London: Routledge. Pp. 33-45. Link

Fortune, Rio. 1963. Sorcerers of Dobu; the social anthropology of the Dobu islanders of the western Pacific. New York: E.P. Dutton. Link

Gagliano, M., Renton, M., Depczynski, M., Mancuso, S. 2014. “Experience teaches plants to learn faster and forget slower in environments where it matters.” Oecologia. 175(1): 63-72. Link

Hayden, Cori. 2003. When Nature Goes Public: the making and unmaking of bioprospecting in Mexico. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Link

Herder, Johann Gottfried. 1800 [1784-91]. “Book II. Ch II. The Vegetable Kingdom of our Earth considered with respect to the History of Man.” Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man. London: Printed by Luke Hansard for J. Johnson.

Irigaray, Luce & Marder, Michael. 2016. Through Vegetal Being: Two Philosophical Perspectives. New York: Columbia University Press. Link

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. 2013. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions. Link

Kosek, Jake. 2006. “4. Racial Degradation and Environmental Anxieties.” Understories: The Political Life of Forests in Northern New Mexico. Durham: Duke University Press. Link

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1969. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Boston: Beacon Press.

Linnaeus, Carolus. 1964 [1735] Systema Naturae. (Facsimile of the first edition.) Engel-Ledeboer, M.S.J. & Engel, H., trans. Nieuwkoop: B. de Graaf. Link

Londoño Sulkin, Carlos David. 2012. People of Substance: an Ethnography of Morality in the Colombian Amazon. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Link

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1978[1935]. The Coral Gardens and their Magic: A Study of the Methods of Tilling the Soil and of Agricultural Rites in the Trobriand Islands. Two Volumes Bound As One. New York: Dover.

Masco, Joseph. 2004. “Mutant Ecologies: Radioactive Life in Post-Cold War New Mexico”. Cultural Anthropology. 19(4): 517-550. Link

McCallum, Cecilia. 2001. Gender and Sociality in Amazonia: How Real People are Made. Oxford: Berg. Link

McKay, George. 2011. “Chapter 2. Organics, Left and Right.” Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism, & Rebellion in the Garden. London: Frances Lincoln Ltd. Link

Miller, Theresa L. 2019. Plant Kin: A Multispecies Ethnography of Indigenous Brazil. Austin: University of Texas Press. Link

Mittman, Greg. 2019. “Reflections on the Plantationocene: A Conversation with Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing.” Link

Murphy, Michelle. 2017. “Alterlife and Decolonial Chemical Relations.” Cultural Anthropology. 32(4): 494-503. Link

Myers, Natasha. 2016. “Photosynthesis.” Theorizing the Contemporary, Fieldsights, January 21. Link

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On Ethnographic Methods

Kathryn Mariner

Department of Anthropology
University of Rochester

January 25, 2022

In assembling this brief reading list on methodology, I was forced to articulate my specific take (make?) on anthropological—namely ethnographic, as I am an ethnographer—methods, a large and unwieldy, even indefinable, perhaps “unteachable,” field of theory and practice. I recently taught the undergraduate methods course in my department for the first time, and it was simultaneously one of the hardest and most rewarding classes I have ever taught. In teaching methods, I didn’t just get to share techniques and strategies for how to do anthropology, I got to reflect creatively and expansively with students (many of whom at this point had only taken one introductory anthropology course) about how we anthropologists think.  As Dara Culhane (2017, 12) observes, “Research ‘methods’ are, therefore, deeply theoretical: the explanatory beliefs (theories) we hold about how knowledge is created, and authorized or dismissed, all shape how we go about conducting our inquiries into meaning making and knowledge co-creation.” In the methods course, I teach students about the sensitivities and sensibilities that we cultivate through reading and talking and asking and listening and watching and feeling and conducting (experiencing?) fieldwork. The sense(s) of attunement we hone through being with others. I want budding ethnographers to understand “the idea that human beings are most productively understood as social beings who come to know what we know, about both ourselves and others, in and through relationship. We make each other up” (Culhane 2017, 18).

I told my undergraduate students that anthropological method is about the three P’s: process, power, and the production of knowledge. In my own work, and following some of my intellectual inspirations, I add a few more Ps: praxis, potential, possibility. The handful of readings included below have shaped my thinking not only on knowledge production, the research process, and power relations. They have also profoundly shaped how I move through the world when I’m not doing (thinking?) ‘proper fieldwork.’ Not just what I do, but how I am. Anthropology itself is, I think, a methodology for being in the world with others. This short list is certainly not exhaustive or comprehensive, and it is not really a list of the ‘usual suspects’ (citation is also methodological [Mariner 2022]), just a small slice of a rich and varied field of inquiry and insight about process, power, praxis, possibility, and the production of anthropological knowledge. The sources cited in this introduction and in the brief annotations that follow (as suggestions for further synergistic reading) appear below under “additional references.” 


Shange, Savannah. 2019 “Chapter One #OurLivesMatter : Mapping an Abolitionist Anthropology.” In Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, AntiBlackness, and Schooling in San Francisco. Durham: Duke University Press. Pp. 1-21.

I love the way that Savannah Shange describes talking about method as a way of “showing” our work, like in a complex math problem—she talks about her “Black queer body” as “both research instrument and research subject” (7). In this introductory chapter of her brilliant book Progressive Dystopia, Shange lays out a blueprint for an “abolitionist anthropology.” In the first few pages, she draws a sharp distinction between revolution, which “seeks to win control of the state and its resources,” and abolition, which “wants to quit playing and raze the stadium of settler-slaver society for good” (3). In democratic socialism, Shange argues, “‘social justice’ means living happily ever after with the antiracist, distributive state. Abolition is a messy breakup with the state—rending, not reparation” (4). This is a crucial frame for anthropologists that want to think ethnographic method through the frame of Black study/studies. It has helped me think about my own work with Black communities, and my position as a Black anthropologist in the white space of the academy and discipline. It could be read quite productively alongside Stefano and Harney’s The Undercommons (2013) and recent theorizations of “accomplice” and “fugitive” anthropology.

Fine, Michelle, and Ruber Rodriguez-Barreras. 2001. “To Be of Use.”  Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy 1 (1):175-182. doi: 10.1111/1530-2415.00012.

In my own research, earlier on transracial adoption, and more recently on urban placemaking, I have lost sleep over why my inquiries matter, the end to which I claim to be producing knowledge. For students, I call this (following numerous of my own teachers) the “so what?” question. Fine and Rodriguez-Barreras press social researchers to examine their motivations and the politics of accountability in their projects. In a later piece on critical participatory action research, Fine (2018, 1) argues that we must ask: “from where do our questions originate? And then we know, to whom we are accountable.” I find “To Be of Use” helps me think through what the authors refer to as “a whole string of problematic binaries between knowledge and action, experts and ‘the people,’ objectivity and subjectivity” (176). Indeed, if we claim to be doing community-engaged research, how are we defining “community?” What does it mean to be a resource? How do we model for students that expertise lies outside the university? For more advanced students and researchers, this would be interesting to read alongside Sara Ahmed’s recent book What’s the Use? (Duke University Press, 2019).

Haraway, Donna. 2016. “A Curious Practice.” In Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press. Pp. 126-133.

The problem of where our research questions originate is taken up beautifully in this chapter in Staying with the Trouble, through the concept of “going visiting.” When I first stumbled upon Haraway’s definition of visiting (a concept inspired by the work of Vinciane Despret and Hannah Arendt, whose words open the chapter), I couldn’t help but see parallels to ethnographic practice. She writes:

Visiting is not an easy practice; it demands the ability to find others actively interesting, even or especially others most people already claim to know all too completely, to ask questions that one’s interlocutors truly find interesting, to cultivate the wild virtue of curiosity, to retune one’s ability to sense and respond—and to do all this politely! (127)

Rather than coming up with our own inquiries and problems within the isolated realm of the Ivory Tower, a better—truer—perhaps method is to pursue the questions of our interlocutors. Methods are a way of doing, thinking, and asking. Haraway emphasizes the importance of “holding open the possibility that surprises are in store, that something interesting is about to happen, but only if one cultivates the virtue of letting those one visits intra-actively shape what occurs” (127). The verb “to visit” has a dual meaning in English: (1) to spend time or socialize with others, and (2) to inflict pain or harm on someone. In this way it can guide ethnographic action without losing sight of the colonial history and extractive potential of our craft. Who and what are we visiting and to what effect? If visiting is indeed “a subject-and-object-making dance” (127), then what is your object and who are your subjects? Within the context of visiting, working together becomes a metaphor for research: “this kind of daily interaction of labor, conversation, and attention” (129). Visiting is a mode of care. Because I adore Haraway’s play with language, I can’t resist ending with another quote: “to go visiting, to venture off the beaten path to meet unexpected, non-natal kin, and to strike up conversations, to pose and respond to interesting questions, to propose together something unanticipated, to take up the unasked-for obligations to having met” (130). This reads beautifully alongside the McKittrick piece that is referenced at the end of this reading list, in which she writes, “Method-making compulsively moves with curiosity (even in frustration) rather than applying a set of techniques to an object of study and generating unsurprising findings and outcomes.” (2021, 44)

Odell, Jenny. 2019. How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Penguin Random House.

If visiting is the confluence of “labor, conversation, and attention” (Haraway 129), an ethnographic methodology is an attentional practice. Ethnography, in a sense, is the art and craft of paying attention. Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing isn’t explicitly about anthropology, but it has profound methodological lessons for those whose practice looks a lot like visiting, or those interested in the notion of “slow” research (Adams, Burke, and Whitmarsh 2014). A kind of radical self-help book for burned out anti-capitalists, How to Do Nothing is a guide for reorienting our individual and collective attention in the face of unending calls for more productivity and optimization. According to Odell, retraining our attention “enriches not only our capacity to resist, but even more simply, our access to the one life we are given. It can open doors where we didn’t see any, creating landscapes in new dimensions that we can eventually inhabit with others. In so doing, we not only remake the world but are ourselves remade” (94). What is ethnographic research if not the cultivation of attention? The brief line that sticks with me the most is, “Eventually, to behold is to become beholden to” (145), which speaks eloquently back to Fine and Ruber-Barrerras’ arguments about accountability. The kind of resistance Odell proposes is “refusal in place.” “The ‘third space’—,” she argues, “not of retreat, but of refusal, boycott, and sabotage—can become a spectacle of noncompliance that registers on the larger scale of the public” (77). I can’t help but imagine how generative it could be to read this text alongside Audra Simpson’s Mohawk Interruptus (2014), in which the concept of ethnographic refusal entails asking questions like “Can I do this and still come home; what am I revealing here and why? Where will this get us? Who benefits from this and why?” (111). Where are our ethnographic limits? How might we use method to resist the call for quantity over quality, for impact factors over impact, for distraction over dismantling, for tenure over intention?

Pink, Sarah. 2008. “An Urban Tour: The Sensory Sociality of Ethnographic Place-making.”  Ethnography 9 (2):175-196. doi: 10.1177/1466138108089467.

Odell’s notion of refusal in place calls to mind another “p” that is crucial to thinking through ethnographic method: place. I find this piece by Sarah Pink helpful—not just for anthropologists working explicitly on questions of space and place—for thinking through how the very selection and demarcation of an ethnographic field site is an act of placemaking. Pink helps us think through how we ethnographers, as well as our research questions and subjects, are emplaced: “the co-presence of researcher and research subject is itself inscribed on place-as-event as it is simultaneously experienced and constituted” (179). The ways in which we define our areas of inquiry—intellectual and geographical—have serious implications for how our research can and will unfold. This piece in particular explores the politics of how ethnographic places are constituted, both through fieldwork and subsequent writing of ethnography. Ethnographers must remain cognizant of anthropology’s long history of using expertise and violence to authoritatively create “places.”

Benson, Peter. 2018. “Tobacco Capitalism, an Afterward: Open Letters and Open Wounds in Anthropology.” Journal for the Anthropology of North America 21(1): 21-34.

In introductory anthropology courses, we often learn (and teach) the Greek etymology of ethnography (people + description). If one of our ethnographic goals is eventual dissemination of what we find/co-create, our understanding of methodology cannot be divorced from a deep engagement with the politics of representation. What is the relationship then, between method and ethnographic writing? In this difficult epistolary piece, Peter Benson addresses a ‘key informant’ with whom he is no longer on speaking terms since the publishing of his first monograph, a critical ethnography of American tobacco farming.  As Benson notes, “we do not usually write books with our informants in mind as the readership” (21)—how might our ethnographic praxis change if we did? When I recently taught this piece in my methods course, one of my students asked whether there exists a form of compassionate or ethical critique. As Benson notes, we do not absolve ourselves of voyeurism or abuses of unequal power when we create distance by claiming to be “critical.” But we also have to come to terms with the consequences of representing views and practices that we find violent, questionable, puzzling, racist. “But if you can’t stop the horror, shouldn’t you at least document it?” (1996, 2), asks Ruth Behar in The Vulnerable Observer. Behar’s classic, along with the edited volume When They Read What We Write would make fitting companion texts for Benson’s piece. These forward-looking concerns about the ‘final product’ of our fieldwork have profound implications for how we design research projects and interventions, how we conduct ourselves in the field, and how our work is received once it is published. The question echoes: “Can I do this and still come home…?” (Simpson 2014, 111).

McKittrick, Katherine. 2021. “The Smallest Cell Remembers a Sound.” In Dear Science and Other Stories. Durham: Duke University Press. Pp. 34-57.

I began this reading list with Black Studies, and Black Studies is where I will end. In this chapter from her latest book, Katherine McKittrick interrogates the relationship between method and discipline, and there are several takeaways for ethnographic practice. “Methodology and method make discipline and knowledge about categories,” she argues, drawing attention to the methodological link between discipline and epistemological violence (35). This text helps me think through what an interdisciplinary ethnography might look like, as a way to navigate “the tensions between liberatory thought and generic institutionalized politics” (37). How do we collectively create canons and toolkits keeping in mind that “description is not liberation” (39). I hear an echo of Gloria Anzaldúa’s claim that “in trying to become ‘objective,’ Western culture made ‘objects’ of things and people when it distanced itself from them, thereby losing ‘touch’ with them. This dichotomy is the root of all violence” (2012, 59). McKittrick contends:

As we see from the work of many scholars of black studies, the liberatory task is not to measure and assess the unfree—and seek consolation in naming violence—but to posit that many divergent and different and relational voices of unfreedom are analytical and intellectual sites that can tell us something new about our academic concerns and our anticolonial futures. (50)

In essence, our methods should be transformative or they’ll be bullshit. An ethnography probably won’t change the world. But it should change something

Kathryn Mariner is Associate Professor at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Rochester. Her new project Fertile Ground is on placemaking in Rochester, New York.

Additional References:

Adams, Vincanne, Nancy J. Burke, and Ian Whitmarsh. 2014. “Slow Research: Thoughts for a Movement in Global Health.” Medical Anthropology 33: 179-197.

Ahmed, Sara. 2019. What’s the Use? Durham: Duke University Press.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. 2012. Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 25th Anniversary Fourth Edition ed. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.

Behar, Ruth. 1996. “The Vulnerable Observer.” In The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart. Boston: Beacon Press. Pp. 1-33.

Brettell, Caroline, ed. 1993. When They Read What We Write: The Politics of Ethnography. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

Culhane, Dara. 2017. “Imagining: An Introduction.” In A Different Kind of Ethnography: Imaginative Practices and Creative Methodologies, edited by Denielle Elliott and Dara Culhane, 1-21. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Fine, Michelle. 2018. Just Research in Contentious Times: Widening the Methodological Imagination. New York: Teachers College Press.

Harney, Stefano and Fred Moten. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. Minor Compositions.

Mariner, Kathryn A. 2022. “Citation.” Feminist Anthropology. (online first).

Simpson, Audra. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham: Duke University Press.

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