Anthropologies of the Future

Felix Ringel

Department of Anthropology

Durham University

& Sonja Moghaddari

Department of Sociology and Social Research

University of Trento

June 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Theories of the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethnographies of the future 

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

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

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

Further reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theoretical Dancing, Liquidity and Positioning

Elena Burgos Martinez

International Institute of Asian Studies

Leiden University Institute for Area Studies

May 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothingness as Ethnographic Theory

Martin Demant Frederiksen

School of Culture and Society

Aarhus University

April 2020

It is difficult not to start a piece about nothingness on a philosophical note. And so, I will.

The question of “why is there something instead of nothing” is one that, according to Heidegger, has not been posed properly since antiquity. The reason for this, he contended, is that the question implies a problematic either/or position. Either there is something, or there is nothing. This is problematic in that it is often the something that we end up considering, leaving little room or effort to think about the nothing. And it is problematic because the either/or conceals the fact that the two (the something and the nothing) only exist in relation to each other (Cutrofello 2014: 80). Sartre came to a similar conclusion in asserting that nothing is, although never as an entity of its own. In all something, there is a little bit (or a whole lot) of nothing, and vice versa. As such, there is reason to talk about nothingness instead of nothing (Sartre 2003). But perhaps we should also, one might continue, talk about somethingness rather than something.

And there is also reason to bring the discussion of this relation beyond the realm of philosophy, and to consider it as a social phenomenon with its own existence. Yet as a social phenomenon it has received surprisingly little attention within anthropology. In the few accounts in which nothing and nothingness do feature, the notions have often been relegated to being an analytical optic making it possible to depict a particular structural position in which people or groups find themselves unable to act in the world. There is great merit to such studies, yet I want to argue here for the potential of seeing nothingness on a broader level. That is, to see nothingness both as a possible empirical object and analytical device, and in the end as an ethnographic theory that allows us to ask a range of novel questions.

A great number of books have been written about the concepts of nothing and nothingsness outside the discipline of anthropology. Some concern the history and genealogy of the concepts (eg. Barrow 2001, Green 2011, Rotman 1987) while others focus on what it means to, or on how to, do nothing (eg. Lutz 2006, Ehn & Löfgren 2010). Alongside these are the numerous philosophical texts and theses which have delved into the two notions (eg. Cutrofello 2014, Dolar 2012, Heidegger 1996, Nietzsche 1968, Sartre 2003), the equally numerous works dedicated to related themes such as voids or negation (eg. Žižek 1993, 2013, Badiou 2007) and the literary works of Franz Kafka, Fjodor Dostojevsky, Ivan Turgenev, Samuel Beckett, and Robert Musil, to mention just a few.

Historically, conceptions of nothing significantly influenced the growth of knowledge in Eastern philosophies, whereas it had an extremely slow start in the West. And when the latter started including nothing as an element of experimental science it was mainly done in mathematics, physics and astronomy, for instance in relation to the question of the vacuum (Barrow 2001: xii). Notions such as nihilism and scepticism would suffer a similar fate in that they were side-tracked by perceptions and ideas relating to ”something” rather than ”nothing”, and to ”meaning” rather than ”meaninglessness” (Cunningham 2002). This changed with the work of French existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. The works of both these writers can be seen as a reflection of the aftermath of the two World Wars and a Europe where life had ceased to make sense in the way it once had. Camus presents us with experiences absurdity and hopelessness, such as in the Myth of Sisyphus (1991) in which the main character is condemned to push a heavy ball up a slope only to see it pushed back down by the gods. In Nausea (2000), Sartre puts forth that there is no inherent purpose to human existence, a position he develops further in Being and Nothingness (2003). ”There is nothing more incomprehensible than the principle of inertia”, writes Sartre (ibid.: 12). Yet, inertia, nothingness and non-being need to be considered as aspects of the real (ibid.: 30).

Sartre gives the example of meeting his friend Pierre at a café. The café, he writes, is full of being and there is ”formed a synthetic organization of all the objects in the café, on the ground of which Pierre is given as about to appear” (ibid.: 33). All these different objects, however, melt into the ground; there is a nihilation of all objects that are not Pierre – they disappear to consciousness so that Pierre can appear. Only, Pierre is not there. But that does not mean that the café re-appears from its nihilation: ”This figure which slips constantly between my look and the solid, real objects of the café is precisely a perpetual disappearance; it is Pierre raising himself as nothingness of the ground of the nihilation of the café. So that what is offered to intuition is a flickering of nothingness; it is the nothingness of the ground, the nihilation of which summons and demands the appearance of the figure, and it is the figure-nothingness which slips as a nothing to the surface of the ground (ibid.: 34, emphasis in original). Sartre uses this example to establish that non-being is a perpetual presence in us and outside us, ”nothingness haunts being” (ibid.: 35). Being still has a logical precedence over nothingness – it is ”from being that nothingness derives concretely its efficacy” (ibid.: 40). Again, being and non-being, then, are not to be seen as opposites. Rather, non-being and nothingness reside on the surface of being – nothingness is a component of the real. And as such, nothing and nothingness may be many different things. This was the vantage point in my own research on nothing and nihilism which deliberately was published as “an” and not “the” anthropology of nothing in particular (Frederiksen 2018).

What is interesting to note is that both Sartre and Camus developed their ideas about absurdity and nothingness alongside the optimism of neoliberalism. That is, a period experienced by many as one of meaninglessness and nothingness yet still represented in liberal politics as one of optimism and potentiality. This odd mix of negativity and positivity continues to hold true in many societies where neoliberalism sets the political agenda, evident in the recent body of anthropological literature depicting the consequences or aftermaths of neo-liberal politics. Aside from Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (2011), these include Elizabeth Povinelli’s exploration of late liberalism in Economies of Abandonment (2011), David Scott’s examination of a time-stalled neoliberal present in Omens of Adversity (2014) and Anne Allison’s depiction of the everyday consequences of socio-economic crisis in Precarious Japan (2014).

A distinctive focus on the social role of nothingness, I believe, has something to add to such studies. And it opens up for a series of questions that are as anthropological as they are philosophical; How is nothing and nothingness conceptualized and lived in particular cultural contexts? And how do particular historical or cultural conceptions of nothing affect upon ideas of subjectivity and agency? How may we approach the social life of individuals and groups who either firmly hold that life is without meaning or contains empty signs, or who have themselves come to occupy positions of non-existence? What are the spatial and material tropes of nothingness? How does a “somewhere” become a “nowhere”, and vice versa? What are the figures and grounds of nothingness as they appear (or disappear) in the context of neoliberal political change? How may we accommodate for and theorize experiences of, and engagements, with nothingness anthropologically? How does one grasp the flickering of nothingness? And how does nothingness as empirical facts effect upon anthropological analysis? What happens when nothing happens? How does nothingness relate to notions such as boredom, waiting, meaninglessness, absence and emptiness? And how does it relate to notions such as freedom and creativity?

Posing such question may open up for new considerations about the socio-cultural histories or perceptions of nothingness in various contexts, and what these may reveal (or conceal) about social life. And it may even offer new ways of theorizing something.


Allison, Anne 2014. Precarious Japan. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Badiou, Alain 2007. Being and Event. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Barrow, John 2001. The Book of Nothing. London: Vintage Books.

Berlant, Lauren 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Camus, Albert 1991. The Myth of Sisyphus: And Other Essays. Vintage.

Cunningham, Conor 2002. Genealogy of Nihilism. Routledge.

Cutrofello, Andrew 2014. All for Nothing – Hamlet’s Negativity.  Cambridge and London: MIT Press.

Dolar, Mladen 2012. ”Nothing has Changed”. In: Daniela Caselli (ed) Beckett and Nothing: Trying to Understand Beckett. Manchester University Press, pp. 48-65.

Ehn, Billy and Ovar Lofgren 2012. The Secret World of Doing Nothing. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Frederiksen, Martin Demant 2018. An Anthropology of Nothing in Particular. Winchester and Washington: Zero Books.

Green, Ronald 2011. Nothing Matters – A Book about Nothing. iff Books.

Lutz, Tom 2006. Doing Nothing. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Nietzsche, Friedrich 1968. The Will to Power. Vintage.

Perec, Georges 2010. An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. New York: Wakefield Press.

Povinelli, Elizabeth 2011. Economies of Abandonment – Social Belonging in Late Liberalism. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Rotman, Brian 1987. Signifying Nothing. Palgrave McMillan.

Sarte, Jean Paul 2000. Nausea. London: Penguin Books.

Sarte, Jean-Paul 2003. Being and Nothingness. London: Penguin Books.

Scott, David 2014. Omens of Adversity. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Žižek, Slavoj 1993. Tarrying with the Negative. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Žižek, Slavoj 2013. Less than Nothing. London: Verso.

Back to Liberation Anthropology

Émir Mahieddin

Centre d’études en sciences sociales du religieux (CéSor)

École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris

February 2020

The decade that has just ended has been marked by profound political upheavals as well as by a renewed interest in ethnographic theory in anthropology. Does this represent a mere temporal coincidence or is there a link between the developments on political and scientific fronts? What if we thought of these two movements as analogous, namely as manifestations of a political and epistemological desire for liberation? Thinking of their analogical relationship and their elective affinities might allow to underline the political spirit of ethnographic theory. The production of theory from situated ethnographies, I argue, could be understood as drawing and expanding on an activist strand of research that goes back to the middle of the 20th century: “liberation anthropology”, a tradition that seems to travel through time, space and languages, without always leaving tracks of connections and continuities between its different expressions.

In January 1968, 400 intellectuals from 70 countries gathered in Cuba, a symbolic place for the international left at the time. There, they co-signed the famous “Appeal of Havana” in which they declared: “Talents and skills which could and should contribute to the task of progress and liberation become, instead, instruments for the commercialization of values, the degradation of culture, and the maintenance of the capitalist economic and social order. It is the fundamental interest and imperative duty of intellectuals to resist this aggression and take up, without delay, the challenge thus posed to them. What is required of them is support for the struggles for national liberation, social emancipation and cultural decolonization.” The call resonated within the discipline. The same year, Kathleen Gough (1968) accused: “Anthropology, child of imperialism!” Of course, the idea is not fully original at the time, and one could find premises in earlier anthropological works. As early as 1949, Ernesto De Martino (1949), inspired by his reading of Antonio Gramsci, had already denounced the discipline’s collusion with colonial rule and expressed the idea that anthropology should be a science engaged for the liberation of subaltern groups in the “hegemonic nations” and for colonized peoples.

But it was following the Appeal of Havana that dependency theorist André Gunder Frank proposed to forge what he called a “liberation anthropology”. He called on European and American anthropologists to stop working on colonized peoples, as this kind of research would in no way be beneficial for their emancipation. Instead, he suggested that they assume their responsibility by putting their science at the service of political movements working for the “destruction of imperialism” in their own societies – even though that may put their own academic careers at risk. Anthropologists from colonized countries, in turn, should also practice anthropology “at home”, for as long as imperialism persisted, the social sciences from the West would never support the development of perspectives that would enhance the emancipation of their societies. In sum, the anthropologist, just like the guerrilla physician Che Guevara, should submit his science to the Revolution by becoming “an intellectual revolutionary rather than a revolutionary intellectual” (Gunder Frank, 1969: 143). He was to contribute to the construction of a society liberated from the violence of capitalism, which would finally be truly “free and humane” (idem: 145).

In the immediate aftermath of hard-won independence, some anthropologists from formerly colonized countries followed Gunder Frank’s idea of a liberation anthropology. They had been actors of liberation movements, or showed solidarity with their causes. They offered to place their knowledge at the service of contestation and social progress rather than oppression, while at the same time producing a radical critique of the discipline itself (Lucas, 1969).

Although it is unclear whether or not he knew of these works, the Algerian Mouloud Mammeri, for example, conceived of anthropology as “an enterprise for the liberation of man”, a “counterweight” to the “weight of servitude” that is increasing in the contemporary world (Mammeri, 2008 [1989]: 168). Mouloud Mammeri (1917-1989) was an anthropologist, linguist, poet and novelist. After his engagement in the Algerian war of liberation, all his work, both scientific and literary, which consisted notably in promoting Berber cultures, was turned towards the criticism of the Algerian regime’s project of Arab nationalist homogeneity. He also fought against the regime’s procedures of falsification of history, which led him to be censured on several occasions. The cancellation by the regime of one of his public lectures in 1980 was the trigger for the “Berber Spring” in Algeria, an exceptional episode of popular protests, which was fiercely repressed.  

The influence of this tradition in activist anthropology lasted beyond the 1960’s. Twenty years later, without referring directly to De Martino, Gunder Frank’s or Mammeri’s formula, but undoubtedly sharing their political sensitivity, Faye Harrison and a collective of activist scholars called for a commitment to an “anthropology for liberation”. “Designed to promote equality and justice-inducing social transformation”, this kind of knowledge production would respond, they hoped, to the challenges of the 21st century (2010 [1991]: 2). Similar to Gunder Frank’s work, the authors also drew their impetus from the experiences of struggle in what was then called the Third World. Inspired by critical intellectual traditions such as postmodernism, radical feminism, as well as non-Western intellectual streams (emanating from the Third World and from racial minorities in the West), their research combined Marxist theory and reflexive approaches to ethnography to investigate the intersection of forms of oppression based on gender, race and class differences. This kind of approach has meanwhile become widespread. However, current studies lack reference to the earlier strands of activist “liberation anthropology” or “anthropology for liberation”. Yet, as their approaches coincide in conceiving of ethnography as an intellectual and activist practice, I argue that public anthropology, postcolonial and decolonial anthropology, and anarchist anthropology, which has known a recent revival (Accolas, Durieux & Planex, 2018), carry onward the ideas of “liberation anthropology”. All of these strands engage with ethnographic theory. Could the popularity of these approaches be understood within the current historical context and its relation to the political aspects of the renewed interest in ethnographic theory?

On the level of politics, the 2010s marked a new era of revolutions and insurrections. From the so-called Arab Spring that began in 2010 to the various protest movements in 2019 (Algeria, the Sudan, Honk Kong, Haiti, Ecuador, Bolivia, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Chile, Catalonia, Iran, etc.), the political proliferation of this decade reminds us of the anti-imperialist movements of the 1960s, as a time marked by the irruption of subaltern masses in history. Beyond their important differences, the 2010s protests all represent expressions of anger against the local effects of global policies, remnants of a colonial order whose ashes are still warm. The current density of political unrest points to a crisis of representation. Echoing the period that gave rise to the idea of liberation anthropology, it prompts us back to the critical duty to which liberation anthropologists had assigned the discipline. Can we see similar insurrectionary/critical/counter-hegemonic dynamics in anthropological research that relates to the dynamic return of ethnographic theory?

On the level of anthropological knowledge production, the 2010s have seen the emergence and success of the journal HAU. The “return of ethnographic theory” David Graeber and Giovanni Da Col (2011) called for at the beginning of the decade was presented as an attempt to popularize ethnographic theory. According to its founders themselves, HAU was conceived out of the feeling that the discipline was suffering from a crisis: firstly, they felt that “the pursuit of human knowledge” was severely damaged by the economic model prevailing in academia, that is to say commercial publishing (2011: ix). Secondly, they shared “a sense of frustration” with the conceptual limits of contemporary anthropology which largely borrowed its concepts from European philosophy. Finally, to them, “in a world where North Atlantic powers” were “growing less dominant” and “even in the old imperial centers, society” grew “increasingly diverse, maintaining the old, purely Euro-American centric forms of knowledge” seemed “increasingly untenable” (2011: xi). Ethnographic theory appeared as an intellectual solution to move out of a crisis of anthropological representation in a postcolonial polycentric world increasingly aware of its diversity.

In this sense, ethnographic theory thus appears as an “anti-imperialistic” move. It is an approach that has elective affinities with what our predecessors called “liberation anthropology”. It could even constitute an intensification of it in that it can decenter its emancipatory potential from the narrow representations of “progress” that emanated from the Western world, including Marxism – secularization, development, extractivism, productivism, the nation-state, etc. It allows us to explore other paths to happiness, endorse decolonial feminisms, explore other possible ontologies of nature and of the supernatural leading to other readings of ecology and religion. It considers alternative mathematical logics, and even questions the universality of the subject that Western modernity had put at the center of its preoccupations and that it is still struggling to get rid of nowadays: the individual. The idea of liberation that emanates from ethnographic theory is thus more pluralistic and not fixed once and for all for all human beings. It is notably the conception the “anthropology of liberation” recently advocated by anthropologist Michael Singleton (2011): it aims at liberating people in their own terms without imposing any external logics, even the logics of anthropology.

This period thus signals a crisis of representation: political as well as ethnographic. Just like contemporary political uprisings around the world, ethnographic theory, as a counter-hegemonic approach, is driven by a desire to get out, even a desire to escape from our time of globalized governance in which the desires instilled by the capitalist Western model still occupy a hegemonic position. Ethnographic theory and the crowds without leaders in the political arena both point to a crisis of homogenization and centralization projects. They coincide with a growing questioning of the monologue of Europe in the narration of history and in the philosophical thoughts that have accompanied and intellectually supported the illusion of a single model of “progress” that would follow the developmental path taken by European societies (quest for ever increasing material wealth, secularization, nationhood, etc.), a view that historian Dipesh Chakrabarty called “historicist” (2000).

David Graeber had already stressed the affinity between ethnographic practice and political anarchism (2004). Ethnographic theory and the insurgent multitudes of the 2010s also seem to share libertarian affinities, perhaps a sign of times. They both correspond to what Viveiros de Castro calls, in his commentary on Pierre Clastres’ work, the “politics of multiplicity” (2019: 70). The anthropologist defines the politics of multiplicity as “a mode of becoming” rather than a “mode of being”. In so doing, it maintains a fugitive character. It is a “regime of intensity” that persists in its molecular state and resists the transition to its instituted form in the name of the preservation of singularities. Although it may be instituted or institutionalized in certain historical situations, its functioning does not depend on it.

In an atmosphere of psychological and intellectual exhaustion, marked by the dissemination of the power of representation allowed by contemporary digital technologies, today’s insurgent crowds are keen to preserve the Multiple without seeking to incarnate themselves into the One of a single structure. They do not blindly follow the path traced out by others of a simulacrum of “progress”. In the same way, by building theory from situated ethnographies, anthropologists seek to flee from overhanging universalisms and thoughts of totality derived from established philosophies. As the insurgents of the 2010s are searching for ways out of the violence of totalizations that seek to apply the same economic and political schema to an infinite multiplicity, ethnographers are wary of wide-ranging Universalist theorizations that tend to impoverish the multiplicity of perspectives on reality by reducing them to a single totalizing thought (Graeber & Da Col 2011).

The recent political mobilizations and the return of ethnographic theory thus seem to play on a common score: they are multitudes exploring the multiplicity of possibilities without fixing – for the moment at least – on a predetermined future. These multitudes invite us to an alternative intellectual and political journey which destination is unknown. They look suspiciously at the “big names” of intellectual or political leaders. Immediate fragmented subjectivities and situated perspectives seem to characterize these subaltern political resistances, opening breaches in the imagination of possible futures (Henry, forthcoming).

The mistrust of the advocates of ethnographic theory towards instituted theories and their willingness to produce theory from situated ethnographies thus echoes the resistance to traditional forms of political struggle in parties or unions. They mark the search for more horizontal and reticular forms of collective (self-)representation. While ethnographic theory inquiries into the epistemological and philosophical potential of all singular knowledge scattered across the globe without giving ascendancy to one over the other, the predominant political organization within the recent anti-austerity insurrections and revolutions of the 2010s is that of the “multitude of decentralized singularities” that “communicate horizontally” (Hardt & Negri, 2013: 53).

Everywhere, the time is ripe for this political form: that of multitudes. In making this argument, I do not aim at affirming the success of this quest or at suggesting that this is a prevailing epistemological and political tendency. Firstly, many intellectual and political endeavors, including the HAU journal, seem to have failed to maintain their founding intensity. Secondly, this violent desire for liberation is met by a brutal desire for borders, as noted by Achille Mbembe (2020). My purpose here is simply to highlight the frequency of this epistemo-political desire for liberation and to draw attention to its rootedness at the heart of anthropology in order to point out, by analogy, the political spirit of ethnographic theory.

By suspending epistemic and ontological convictions, ethnographic theory is indeed the form of knowledge that anthropology needs to accompany intellectually – and not guide – the contemporary political world in its quest for a liberation that is fiercely respectful of singularities. The latter still seems indeterminate only because it is, contrary to the modernist capitalist and state logic that had made totalization and homogeneity its projects, a quest for the preservation of multiplicity. Suspicious of institutionalized forms of knowledge, ethnographic theory could thus be seen as an intensification of the process of cultural decolonization. As such it constitutes an intellectual emancipation from the narrow historicist and Universalist definitions of liberation that had permeated the 20th century, encouraging the subaltern masses to institutionalize their counter-hegemonic policies around Western philosophies.


I express my intellectual debt to historian Melanie Henry, whose work on the political experience of insurgency constantly stimulates my views. Many ideas in this text are reflections of our conversations.


Accolas S., Durieux J. & Planeix A., 2018, “Anthropology and anarchism”, Journal des anthropologues, 152-153: 25-34.

Chakrabarty D., 2000, Provincializing Europe. Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Da Col G. & Graeber D., 2011, “Foreword. The Return of Ethnographic Theory”, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 1 (1): vi-xxxv.

De Martino E., 1949,Intorno a una storia del mondo popolare subalterni”, Società, 3, 411-435.

Harrison F. (ed.), 2010 [1991], Decolonizing Anthropology. Moving Further towards an Anthropology for Liberation, Arlington American Anthropological Association. 

Henry M., Forthcoming, “IMF Riots or Nasserist Revolt? Thinking Fluid Memory – Egypt 1977”, International Review of Social History.

Gough K., 1968, “Anthropology and Imperialism”, Monthly Review. An Independent Socialist Magazine, pp. 12-27.

Graeber D., 2004, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, Chicago, Prickly Paradgim Press.

Gunder Frank A., 1969, Latin America: Underdevelopment or Revolution, New York, Modern Reader. 

Hardt M. & Negri A., 2013, Déclaration. Ceci n’est pas un manifeste, Paris, Raison d’agir.

Lucas P., 1969, Sociologie de Frantz Fanon. Contribution à une anthropologie de la libération, Alger, SNED.

Mammeri M., 2008 [1989], « Entretien : Mouloud Mammeri ou le courage lucide d’un intellectuel marginalisé » in Écrits et paroles. Tome II, Alger, CNRPAH, pp. 165-190.  

Mbembe A., 2020, Brutalisme, Paris, La Découverte.

Singleton M., 2011, « Pour une anthropologie de libération », Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques, vol. 42 (I), pp. 45-61.

Viveiros De Castro E., 2019, Politique des multiplicités. Pierre Clastres face à l’État, Paris, Éditions Dehors.

Anthropological Engagements with the Far-Right

Antje Berger, Annika Lems and Christine Moderbacher

Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle

February 2020

The world is facing a period of dramatic social and political change. Perceived crises, combined with the intensification of social inequality have caused discontent to grow to such an extent that political commentators speak of an “existential crisis” or express fear of Europe returning to its “dark past”. As reactionary, anti-immigration and neo-nationalist sentiments spread like wildfire, leading intellectuals argue that we are entering a postliberal age – an age marked by regression (Nachtwey 2016; Geiselberger 2017) and anger (Mishra 2017). Against the backdrop of the political turmoil spanning from Trump’s America, to the UK’s Brexit struggles, to the re-election of Modi in India, to Viktor Orbán’s unchallenged success in Hungary, to Salvini’s grip on Italy, to the support for Bolsanaro in Brazil – to name just a few prominent examples – anthropologists across the globe have been taken aback by the scale of the political changes. Because of their closeness to people’s lived experiences, anthropologists would be in a prime position to deliver crucial insights into the processes of political micro-mobilisation propelling these changes. Yet, due to the reluctance to study groups they cannot sympathise with, anthropological studies on right-wing and reactionary cultural practices are few and far between, or, as Hugh Gusterson (2017: 2) recently put it, “still embryonic”.

In the light of the recent developments however, anthropologists have woken up to the fact that they can no longer afford to overlook the backlash against established political and cultural norms. The countless panels, roundtable discussions, blog posts and special issues dedicated to the rise of the far-right in recent years show that the discipline has now well and truly woken up to the fact that it needs to develop a new repertoire of methodological, ethical and conceptual tools to be able to ethnographically capture the social worlds of people who support right-wing and neo-nationalist parties. Recent publications mirror a wave of growing anthropological interest in the topic as well as expanded reflections on ethical questions that arise from studying “unlikeable others” (Pasieka 2019). We see our own on-going research as part of these attempts. While all of us have spent many years working with or researching refugees, we have recently “changed sides” to study the lifeworlds of people who see the presence of migrants and refugees as a threat to their values and ways of life. By studying the lifeworlds of ordinary men and women supporting exclusionary political ideas on the ground, we attempt to come to a more nuanced understanding of the motives and causes of reactionary practices.

In this reading list we aim to give an overview over some of the key anthropological engagements with far-right, (neo-) nationalist or authoritarian movements. Despite the often repeated mantra that ethnographies of the political “other” form an intellectual wasteland, with this blog post we hope to show that anthropologists do not have to start from scratch, but that they can build on a robust body of literature. Whilst not claiming to be comprehensive, we have chosen a range of books and articles we found particularly helpful, important or illuminating. For this reading list, we especially looked at work that paved the way for more recent engagements with the far right and tried to include work that touches upon some of the most pertinent questions anthropologists have grappled with. While we could have started the list earlier – for example with Ernest Gellner’s (1983) path breaking Nations and Nationalism, or Bruce Kapferer’s (1988) Legends of People, Myths of State – we have dated its beginning in the 1990s and early 2000s, when there was a pronounced rise in anthropological interest in this topic.

Representing Fundamentalism: The Problem of the Repugnant Cultural Other (1991) by Susan Harding, in Social Research 58 (2).

Harding’s iconic article is one of the earliest and most elaborate engagements with the question of how anthropologists can study the social worlds of people whose worldviews they do not share. Importantly, she asks how anthropologists have contributed to the production of the figure of the reactionary as a “repugnant cultural other”. By looking into the history of religious fundamentalism in the United States she shows that such figures are not self-evident, but the product of modern discursive practices. Harding suggests reading the emergence of these figures as an intersection of discursive practices by interrogating representation itself – an approach she also uses in other work on fundamentalism and millennialism (Harding 2000; Stewart & Harding 1999).

The New Racism in Europe: A Sicilian Ethnography (1997) by Jeffrey Cole. Cambridge University Press.

Based on long term field research in Palermo, Cole’s book offers an important early insight into the politics of race and racism in Europe. By zooming in on everyday responses to African and Asian migrants, he establishes class variations in anti-immigration sentiments. Cole contrasts his findings from Sicily with the intense politicisation of migration and race in Italy’s North, highlighting the regional differences in economy and politics. Long before the current wave of anthropological interest in these issues, Cole suggested that anthropologists needed to pay more attention to “the experiences, hopes, and fears of working people” to capture the tensions underwriting liberal democracies across the world (Cole 1997: 131).

Integral Europe: Fast-Capitalism, Multiculturalism, Neofascism (2000) by Douglas Holmes. Princeton University Press.

In his ground-breaking work on the rise of the right in Europe in the 1990s, Holmes offers important conceptual insights into the dark undercurrents marking modern Europe’s social and political landscape. Through multi-sited ethnographic research with politicians and activists that stretches from northern Italy, to the hallways of the European Parliament in Strasbourg and Brussels, to the East End of London, he analyses the social and intellectual contexts of neo-nationalism in Europe. Holmes makes an important conceptual point when he argues that support for right-wing parties never appears out of the blue. These parties successfully tap into established traditions of anti-liberal thought and the alternative theories of society they present.

White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society (2000) by Ghassan Hage. Pluto Press.

Whilst not directly related to right-wing nationalism, White Nation is essential reading for anthropologists attempting to unpack the white supremacist imaginaries underwriting much of the current political backlash. By examining the ways Australians imagine the national space and their relation to it, Hage reveals the social structures underlying the fantasy of Australia as a white nation. What makes this book so relevant for anthropological engagements with reactionary cultural practices, is that Hage focuses on the ways Australians experience multiculturalism, whiteness and supremacy. Importantly, he urges anthropologists to critically reflect on their own roles and resist the temptation of “becoming a commentator on a clearly media-fed ‘look-at-the-racist freak show’” (Hage 2000: 20). His book is an early call for the importance of experience-near perspectives on contentious political ideologies and movements – an approach that can also be found in his more recent work on the links between the extractive nature of racism and the environmental catastrophe we are facing (Hage 2017).

Neo-Nationalism in Europe and Beyond (2006) edited by Andre Gingrich and Marcus Banks. Berghahn.

This edited volume forms a helpful introduction into the anthropological study of neo-nationalism and the methodological conundrums it produces. The authors aim at addressing a broader audience, unpacking the term “neo-nationalism” and highlighting the important role anthropology can play in understanding reactionary political movements. The ten contributions provide illuminating engagements with the surge of right-wing populist parties Europe faced at the turn of the millennium and its links to the increasing power of the European Union. The book offers important comparative perspectives into the topic, by linking developments in Europe to wider global political dynamics.

Ethnographies of the Far Right (2007) edited by Kathleen Blee. Special Issue in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 36 (2).

Even though this special issue is not directed at anthropologists per se, we believe that it needs to be included in this reading list. Sociologist Kathleen Blee, known from her previous and much recognized work on racism and gender in the Ku Klux Klan (1991) as well on contemporary hate movements (2002), echoes anthropological interests when she stresses the importance of close-up examinations of far-right activists. She argues that such ethnographic engagements are key to understanding how far-right groups recruit members and reach out to the general public. The collection of articles featured in this special issue demonstrate the important intellectual work ethnographic theorisations of extremist movements perform.

Shiv Sena Women: Violence and Communalism in a Bombay Slum (2007) by Atrayee Sen. Indiana University Press.

This engaging book offers a rare insight into the role of women in nationalist and extremist movements. In her in-depth ethnography of a low-income, working-class slum of Bombay, Sen carves out the lives of the women and children of the Shiv Sena, one of the most radical and violent Hindu nationalist parties that dominated Indian politics throughout the 90s and into the present. She makes visible the Sena women’s reasons for organizing themselves along paramilitary lines, arguing that it enabled them to create a distinct social identity, form networks of material support, and offer protection from male violence. By moving debates about the far-right beyond its Western and male-dominated focus, this book forms a crucial intervention.

Conversations with a Polish Populist: Tracing Hidden Histories of Globalization, Class, and Dispossession in Postsocialism (and beyond) (2009) by Don Kalb. American Ethnologist 36 (2).

We chose this article as it offers a great discussion of the role of class and the liberal paradigm in the success of populist parties. In the article Kalb investigates the rise of populist, neo-nationalist sensibilities in Wroclaw, Poland. He argues that the increased spread of such sentiments needs to be regarded as a defensive response by working-class people to the silences imposed upon them by liberal hegemonic practices. Unpacking the particularity of the Polish path to populist paranoia, he suggests that scholars should not focus solely on parties and elites, but on the lived subtexts of social and existential insecurity propelling people to vote for the far-right. By focusing on the story of one polish populist he draws attention to a “particular hidden history of worker solidarities and their dramatically declining power, prestige, and opportunities in post socialist Poland” (Kalb 2009: 218). 

The Insecure American: How We Got There and What We Should Do About It (2010) edited by Hugh Gusterson and Catherine Besteman. University of California Press.

This edited volume provides an excellent introduction into the affective dimensions underlying the rise of the right in the United States. The book manages to capture the zeitgeist of American society as a deeply insecure one, marked by “a social, political, and economic environment that makes us all less secure” (Gusterson & Besteman 2010: 29). The engaging and well-written contributions range from Nancy Scheper-Hughes’s personal account of the declining quality of the care her parents received in a middle-class nursing home in Baltimore, to Setha Low’s partly auto-ethnographical story of her sisters’ recent move into one of Americas growing gated communities, to Jane Collin’s account of Wal-Mart’s shocking business strategy that translates into chronic poverty for its employees. We chose the book for the reading list as it paints powerful ethnographic pictures of the concrete effects neoliberal changes can have on people’s daily lives and of how these changes intersect with the domain of the political.

Headlines of Nation, Subtexts of Class: Working-class Populism and the Return of the Repressed in Neoliberal Europe (2011) edited by Don Kalb and Gabor Halmai. Berghahn.

Like Kalb’s article mentioned above, this edited volume delivers crucial insights to the role of class in right-wing populist parties’ success. Focusing on working-class people and the ways they are affected by global processes of neoliberalisation, it encourages anthropologists to bring class back into their engagements with politics and nationalism. The different contributions highlight significant differences between Central and Western European settings and create a vivid portrait of “how working-class Europeans have come to understand and respond to the disastrous consequences that have followed the implementation of neoliberal policies” (George Baca, in this volume: 194).

The Management of Hate: Nation, Affect, and the Governance of Right-wing Extremism in Germany (2016) by Nitzan Shoshan. Princeton University Press.

This book heralds the start of a wave of more recent anthropological engagements with the far-right. Based on research amongst young neo-Nazis in Berlin, Shoshan illuminates the lives and backgrounds of right-wing extremists. He explores the ways the state performs the management of these young extremists’ hate “as an immense project of affective governance” (Shoshan 2016: 264). Shoshan points to this management of hate as being rooted in Germany’s particular past, arguing that the suppression of this past and the ideology of National Socialism gave rise to other modes of nationalism. In paying attention to the politics of affect, the book initiates an important discussion about the figure of the reactionary as a “dangerous other”.

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (2016) by Arlie Russell Hochschild. New Press.

While written by a sociologist, this masterfully crafted book offers crucial insights into the lifeworlds of the supporters of reactionary parties. Based on in-depth ethnographic research amongst supporters of the conservative right and the Tea Party Movement in Louisiana, Hochschild explores the emotion underlying politics. She uses affect as a core tool to explore how “the other side” (ibid: 135) perceives the world. Hochschild tries to bridge what she calls the “empathy wall” to truly understand the people she is working with from their own perspectives, taking seriously their choices, feelings and lives. This approach and the well- written accounts of the life worlds of Tea party members make this book an invaluable source for ethnographic engagements with the figure of the reactionary.

The Hands of Donald Trump: Entertainment, Gesture, Spectacle (2016) by Kira Hall & Donna Meryl Goldstein & Matthew Bruce Ingram. In HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6 (2).

We included this article in the list as we found the socio-linguist perspective it adds to current debates on the rise of the right to be important and thought-provoking. The authors focus on Donald Trump’s 2016 candidacy as the creation of an almost comedic event. They analyse his use of bodily expressions and gestures, such as his iconic “pistol hand gesture”, or the expressions he used to mock political opponents. They claim that Trump’s success needs to be viewed in the light of his entertainment skills. The authors follow neo-marxist scholars in describing the political formations marking late capitalism as “fetishizing style over content” (Hall et al. 2016: 92). The article is followed by a range of responses, which were published in the same journal some months later (2017, volume 7, number 1). These responses are as insightful and interesting as the original article. We therefore recommend reading the article in combination with the discussion it provoked.

Overheated Underdogs: Civilizational Analysis and Migration on the Danube-Tisza Interfluve (2016) by Chris Hann. History & Anthropology 27 (5).

Based on Hylland-Eriksen’s (2016) concept of “overheating”, Hann observes how rural Hungarians are being pushed into a marginalised position in an era of late Western capitalism. He argues that this marginalisation contributed to the resentments towards migrants in 2015 – resentments Hann describes as “agrarian populism”. The article is an important reminder of how crucial it is to deploy a historical angle in the analysis of right-wing populist sentiments. Hann shows that settlers in the rural areas of the Danube-Tisza Interfluve were exposed to economic hardships in the 19th and 20th century. During the socialist period, the area prospered modestly from agricultural wine production, but moving towards social inequality soon. Transformation processes in the 1990s led to the privatisation of nearly all farms and struggles to adjust to market competition, leaving farmers without significant opportunities to secure their livelihoods within the agricultural sector. Hann argues that it is against the backdrop of these historical changes that rural Hungarians became attracted to right-wing populist resentments and promises.

Fascism as a Style of Life. Community Life and Violence in a Neofascist Movement in Italy (2017) by Maddalena Gretel Cammelli. Focaal, Issue 79.

We included this article by Cammelli as it is one of the rare anthropological engagements of the far-right that is based on thick ethnographic description. She centres her work on the performance of fascist traditions in contemporary Italy by analysing community life in the neo-fascist movement CasaPound. She explores how members of CasaPoud create an experience of community beyond political endeavours, by establishing certain neo-fascist infrastructures such as pubs, bookstores, restaurants, shared housing and music bands. In doing so, Cammelli shows how right-wing ideology becomes interwoven with people’s everyday lives.

Taking Far-Right Claims Seriously and Literally: Anthropology and the Study of Right-Wing Radicalism (2017) by Agnieszka Pasieka. Slavic Review 76 (1).

We found Pasieka’s work (also see Pasieka 2019) a very helpful point of departure as it manages to capture the moral dilemmas involved in conducting research with far-right activists without normalising their violent and extremist worldviews. In this article she questions the dualistic schemes that often underwrite public debates – such as the urban/rural, the educated/non-educated and the western/eastern divide – as explanations for a rising right-wing populism. Pasieka calls for more profound anthropological contributions to these public debates by rethinking the meaning of empathy. She sees this as an important step to challenging moral delineations that might restrict anthropologists from working with far-right activists and therefore render insights into their lived realities invisible.

From Brexit to Trump: Anthropology and the Rise of Nationalist Populism (2017) by Hugh Gusterson. American Ethnologist 44 (2).

This article is part of a collection of essays on Brexit and Trump published in American Ethnologist. While all the contributions to this forum are interesting, we found Gusterson’s particularly revealing. He raises an important point in his critique of the “blue-collar narrative” prevalent in the media to explain the success of the right in the United States. He suggests that anthropologists need to move beyond this simplified explanatory model of Donald Trump’s success, arguing that the role of wealthy voters and the petty bourgeoisie should also be examined. In order to fully understand rising populisms, he calls for an expansion of anthropological engagement with “the conservative Other” (Gusterson 2017: 213).

Nationalist Responses to the Crisis in Europe: Old and New Hatreds (2018) by Catherine Thorleifsson. Routledge.

Guided by the question of how supporters of right-wing parties perceive themselves, Thorleifsson conducted multi-sited ethnographic research amongst supporters of right-wing parties in the United Kingdom, Norway and Hungary. Aware about the risk of essentialising the people she worked with, she largely avoids the term “extremists”, when referring to the supporters of right-wing parties. Her leading argument is that rising populism should be analysed against the backdrop of neoliberal globalisation, but that it cannot be reduced to a single cause. Like Hann, Thorleifsson follows Hylland-Eriksen’s concept of the “overheating effects” (Thorleifsson 2016: 4) of globalisation to consider the interplay between economy, displacement, culture and identity and the attempts of right-wing parties in “cooling” down these effects.

Collaborating with the Radical Right: Scholar-Informant Solidarity and the Case for an Immoral Anthropology (2019) by Benjamin Raphael Teitelbaum. Current Anthropology 60 (3).

This article and the heated debates it provoked are essential reading for anthropologists attempting to gain a deeper understanding of the ethical challenges involved in conducting research with right-wing extremists. It is a great example of the dangerous political territories anthropologists can enter when they over-empathize with their research participants. In the article Teitelbaum aims to expand anthropological understandings of scholar-informant solidarity – as based on trust and friendship – to collaboration, reciprocity and advocacy, also with informants of “the bad sort” (Teitelbaum 2019: 415). He insists on calling his research participants (anti-immigrant and neo-fascist activists) “nationalists” – the term they use to describe themselves – even though this downplays the violent and authoritarian worldviews they harbour. Teitelbaum’s suggestion that anthropologists need to prioritise “research efficacy over moral integrity”, have given rise to a number of deeply critical, yet highly illuminating responses by other anthropologists, which are published in the same issue.

Forging an Anthropology of Neoliberal Fascism (2019) by Adrienne Pine. Public Anthropologist 1 (1).

This recent article offers an insightful reflection on the usefulness of fascism as an analytical category for anthropologists. Pine explores the interconnection between nationalism and neoliberalism, describing neoliberalism as a breeding ground for fascism (Pine 2019: 39). Her ethnographic account of young Hondurans in US-American immigration detention centres points to the structural racism and repression these young men are confronted with, which Pine considers as a practiced fascism. She calls for anthropological solidarity with structurally disadvantaged people.

By Way of Conclusion

Bringing this blog post to a close, we take the liberty to make a few concluding observations. We want to emphasise again that our reading list is by no means comprehensive. We have left out many interesting and thought-provoking articles and books. Our list represents only a selection of articles we believe to be representative for the main themes and questions anthropologists dealing with the far-right have been preoccupied with. A very good attempt to summarise these recurring themes can also be found in William Mazzarella’s (2019) recent review article for the Annual Review of Anthropology.

What we take away from our own engagement with the anthropological literature on reactionary cultural practices is the persuasion that we need to stop claiming that the far-right forms an anthropological wasteland. Secondly, and connected to this point, we believe that anthropologists need to stop exceptionalising the study of the far-right. While conducting ethnographic research with people whose worldviews researchers do not share comes with its own set of challenges, anthropologists do not have to reinvent the wheel but can draw on established epistemological traditions that allow them to critically reflect on their research relationships. Finally, we agree with Heath Cabot’s (2019) recent suggestion that anthropologists need to resist the tendency to frame their research subjects in terms of a “crisis” – often an attempt to make their work look more important, relevant or sexy. We believe that framing the current political backlash as a crisis runs the risk of playing into the temporal regimes that crises harbour. The intense focus on the present inherent in frameworks of crisis often comes at the expense of voices, experiences and perspectives from the past.

By describing the racist and exclusionary practices inherent in the present political landscape as a “crisis”, anthropologists risk exceptionalising these practices and silencing the voices of people who have pointed out the normalization of white supremacist sentiments in contemporary politics for a long time. Often, these people are exactly the ones who have had to bear the brunt of the backlash against multiculturalism and diversity. This tendency can be seen in the almost complete disregard in the literature on the far-right for the important lessons it could learn from scholars of colour and critical race, who have studied exclusionary practices for many decades. While these studies might not have explicitly framed their research in terms of an engagement with the far-right, they have delivered crucial insights into the ways supremacist and racialized ideas are made and unmade in the everyday. We mentioned Ghassan Hage’s work as one example, but the list could be extended indefinitely, stretching back to the work of Frantz Fanon (1986), Etienne Balibar (1991) and bell hooks (1995). We therefore want to end our reading list with two publications we found particularly helpful for understanding the everyday processes of racialisation underlying the rise of the far-right.

A Phenomenology of Whiteness (2007) by Sara Ahmed. Feminist Theory 8 (2).

We regard this text as key reading for any anthropologist attempting to understand the white supremacist imaginaries underlying the rise of the right. Ahmed suggests treating whiteness as an experience which is marked by the very disappearance of whiteness as a category. This disappearance, she stresses, is at the heart of whiteness as a worldly phenomenon. By approaching the question of whiteness from a phenomenological angle, Ahmed turns the focus towards the ways whiteness is lived and forms a background to experience. From a phenomenological perspective, whiteness “could be described as an ongoing and unfinished history, which orientates bodies in specific directions, affecting how they ‘take up’ space” (Ahmed 2007: 150). It is precisely in pointing out the ways certain bodies are entitled to take up more space than others that Ahmed’s text offers a crucial guidance in understanding how white supremacist ideas are anchored in the realm of the everyday, rather than in the domain of the exceptional.   

Anthropology of White Supremacy (2019), edited by Aisha M. BelisoDe Jesús and Jemima Pierre. American Ethnologist (online first version).

This recently published special section is a crucial wake-up call for anthropologists to take its own white supremacist legacies more seriously and engage in a more thorough critique of its role in modern anthropological regimes of knowledge production. In pointing out the various ways anthropologists have eschewed questions about white supremacist sentiments in their own work and discipline, this special issue performs important groundwork. It is a vital reminder that anthropological engagements with the current reactionary backlash cannot ignore the racial hierarchies and supremacist imaginaries underlying its success. The authors stress that “rather than regarding white supremacy as representative of extremist racist groups (as exist throughout Europe and the Americas), we understand white supremacy to be infused in all structures of global power” (Beliso-De Jesús & Pierre 2019).

Cited Work

Balibar, Etienne. 1991. Is there a Neo-Racism? In Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, edited by Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, 17-28. London, New York: Verso.

Blee, Kathleen M. 1991. Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Blee, Kathleen M. 2002. Inside Organized Racism: Women and Men in the Hate Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cabot, Heath. 2019. “The Business of Anthropology and the European Refugee Regime.”  American Ethnologist 46 (3): 261-275

Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. 2016. Overheating: An Anthropology of Accelerated Change. London: Pluto.

Fanon, Frantz. 1986. Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto Press.

Gellner, Ernest. 1983. Nations and Nationalism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Gusterson, Hugh. 2017. From Brexit to Trump: Anthropology and the Rise of Nationalist Populism. American Ethnologist 44 (2): 209-214.

Geiselberger, Heinrich, ed. 2017. The Great Regression. Cambridge, Malden: Polity Press.

Hage, Ghassan. 2017. Is Racism an Environmental Threat? Cambridge: Polity Press.

Harding, Susan Friend. 2000. The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

hooks, bell. 1995. Killing Rage: Ending Racism. New York: Holt & Company.

Kapferer, Bruce. 1988. Legends of People, Myths of State: Violence, Intolerance, and Political Culture in Sri Lanka and Australia. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Mazzarella, William. 2019. The Anthropology of Populism: Beyond the Liberal Settlement.  Annual Review of Anthropology 48 (1): 45-60.

Mishra, Pankaj. 2017. Age of Anger: A History of the Present. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Nachtwey, Oliver. 2016. Die Abstiegsgesellschaft – Über das Aufbegehren in der regressiven Moderne. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp.

Pasieka, Agnieszka. 2019. Anthropology of the Far-Right: What If We Like the ‘Unlikeable’ Others? Anthropology Today 35 (1): 3-6.

Stewart, Kathleen, and Susan Friend Harding. 1999. Bad Endings: American Apocalypsis. Annual Review of Anthropology 28: 285-310.

Teitelbaum, Benjamin Raphael. 2019. Collaborating with the Radical Right: Scholar-Informant Solidarity and the Case for an Immoral Anthropology. Current Anthropology 60 (3): 414-435.

Thorleifsson, Cathrine. 2018. Nationalist Responses to the Crisis in Europe: Old and New Hatreds. London: Routledge.

Histories of Energy

Nandita Badami

Department of Anthropology

University of California, Irvine

January 2020

Over the past decade, a growing number of social theorists have pointed to the urgent need to theorize energy in the context of dwindling reserves of coal and oil. Within anthropology, Dominic Boyer has stressed “the staggering significance of energy as the undercurrent and integrating force for all other modes and institutions of modern power” (2011, 5). Literary theorist Imre Szeman informed us that “(e)nergy has emerged as a problem, in part, because despite its now apparent importance and significance to almost everyone, it has not been typically factored into social theory – into broad understandings and conceptualizations of the operation and function of social systems and the subjects who inhabit them” (2014, 453). Similar sentiments were echoed by sociologist John Urry, whose essay “The Problem of Energy” aimed to address the lacunae in social theory born from “insufficiently [exploring] … systems that energize societies and engender different habits and practices” (2014, 3). For Urry, a marker of just how much of a blind-spot energy had become, was evidenced in Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity (2000). Although published relatively recently, Bauman did not once think to mention that a literal liquid—oil—was powering the social formations he was theorizing as a condition of late capitalism (6). It is an oversight almost unthinkable today.

The following collection of readings have less to do with the politics of how we have historically consumed energy than with how we have conceived of it to begin with. Some of the readings are intellectual histories that help us navigate the multiple meanings we associate with energy, reconstructing how its spiritual registers got enfolded into the scientific. Others take the scientific as a starting point to consider how it patterned the social. Together, they help us to locate energy an anthropological object, and to think politically with it at the intersection of its multiplicities.

Smith, Crosbie. 1998. The science of energy: A cultural history of energy physics in Victorian Britain.

Smith writes a history of how our present colloquial use of energy is steeped in an epistemology that developed in nineteenth century Europe, when it was first cast as measurable, calculable and quantifiable in the guise of a newly formulated “science of energy.” The book follows the lives eight men—famous scientists and engineers—who worked to develop and popularize the modern epistemic we now associate with energy. Smith’s argument underlines the significance of the protestant belief in the perfection of nature to the conceptual development of thermodynamics—we learn, for instance, that James Joule, one of the scientists credited with discovering that relationship between heat and mechanical energy, based at least part of his theory of energy conservation on the theological belief that “the power to destroy belongs to the creator alone” (298).

Illich, Ivan. 2010. “The social construction of energy.” New Geographies 

Illich’s short, polemical essay[1] similarly reminds us that “e” is a social construct, a notational device developed by physicists to express equations with greater elegance.  Because it is not natural, but rather, socially constructed, energy has a history as well as social effects—specifically, the quantification of energy created the conceptual conditions that naturalized scarcity as an epistemic framework. His somewhat energetic (pun intended) writing sums it up best: “Once famous physicists had lent their prestige to the interpretation of energy as nature’s ultimate Kapital, the principle of ‘the conservation of energy’ became the cosmological confirmation of the postulate of scarcity. The principle of contradiction was ‘operationalized’; it was restated in the formula that ‘you can’t get a free lunch.’ By a cosmic extension of the assumption of scarcity, the world visible and invisible was turned into a zero-sum game, as if Jehovah, with a big bang, had created das Kapital” (15).

Rabinbach, Anson. 1992. The human motor: Energy, fatigue, and the origins of modernity.

Rabinbach’s is an intellectual history of the metaphor in his title. He reconstructs how energetics  (born from the scientific discovery of thermodynamics) led to the idea of the human body as motor, and fueled visions of modernity based on the physical ability of the human body to convert energy into work. Rabinbach is concerned with the same scientific developments as Smith, but follows them through their impacts on the social. His book explores the theories that fueled the metaphor as well as the politics that resulted from it.

Mirowski, Philip. 1992. More heat than light: Economics as Social Physics, Physics as Nature’s Economics.

Mirowski’s intellectual history is also built around an attention to the scientific concept of energy as it developed in nineteenth century Britain, and has an excellent second chapter titled “Everything an Economist Needs to Know About Physics But Was Probably Too Afraid to Ask: A History of the Energy Concept.” However, this is only Mirwoski’s starting point. He goes on to critique the fundamentally flawed assumptions of neoclassical economics that were based on a weak analogy, if not a misunderstanding, of energetics.

Barry, Andrew. 2015. “Thermodynamics, matter, politics.” Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory

Barry’s essay critiques the under-theorized, vitalist mobilization of energy within the new-materialism literature. In its place, he calls for greater engagement with how thermodynamic frameworks continue to shape the political. He demonstrates how this might be possible through a reading of Isabelle Stenger’s Cosmopolitics (2010).

Daggett, Cara New. 2019. The Birth of Energy: Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics, and the Politics of Work.

Daggett’s book, the most recent in this genre, offers a “genealogy of energy” alongside a prescriptive politics, outlining how we might imagine a different energy epistemology than the one we inherited from nineteenth century physics. She theorizes thermodynamics as an imperial science that colonized the energy episteme and therefore shaped the modern productive economic subject in both the metropolis and the colony. Pitching the logics of energy efficiency enfolded into waged labour as “the bogeyman that stymies environmental politics” (11), she advocates “energy freedom” in its place, defining it as “the attempt to free more energy from the structures of waged, productive work” (204).

Boyer, Dominic.  2014. “Energopower: An Introduction.” Anthropological Quarterly.

Finally, a resource from within anthropology, and an intellectual history of its own kind. In this discussion of the history of energy within the discipline, Boyer outlines three “generations” of engagement with energy in anthropology and allied disciplines that (unsurprisingly) coincide with historical moments when energy became a widespread matter of concern.  The first generation, Leslie White’s universalist energetic model of social evolution, developed in the decade between the late 1940s and late 1950s, emerged in conjunction with the successful experiments in nuclear fission as well as the Manhattan Project. The second generation dates to the 1970s and 1980s, and, with one exception, consisted mostly of applied work that addressed the impact of energy infrastructures on social groups. This resurgence of interest took place against the backdrop of the oil shock, and, as Boyer points out, waned in direct proportion to the political resolution of the crises. We are in Boyer’s third generation – a growing disillusionment with the assumed infinitude of energy supply, and the slow accumulation of the theoretical weight of actor-network theory, the Foucauldian power/knowledge division, posthumanism, new materialism and speculative realism inform the direction of contemporary theorization.

Works cited in introductory paragraph:

Boyer, Dominic. “Energopolitics and the Anthropology of Energy.” Anthropology News 52, no. 5 (May 1, 2011): 5–7.

Szeman, Imre. “Conclusion: On Energopolitics.” Anthropological Quarterly 87, no. 2 (2014): 453–64.

Urry, John. “The Problem of Energy.” Theory, Culture & Society 31, no. 5 (September 1, (2014): 3–20.

[1] More accurately, the text is a previously unpublished lecture delivered in 1983 at a seminar titled “The Basic Option Within Any Future Low-Energy Society” at El Colegio de Mexico.

Understanding Kashmir

Radhika Gupta

Faculty of Humanities

Leiden University

December 2019

While colonial representations of Kashmir were fixated on it either as an idyllic paradise or an area that held significance in the shadows of the “Great Game,” postcolonial engagement was unable to escape methodological nationalism. Knowledge on the region has been suffocated by the over-abundance of geopolitical and security studies type of analyses. There is thus, until recently, a paucity of ethnography that lends textured insight into the complexities of life, love, food, labour, kinship, money and market. The sociology and anthropology of Kashmir have for decades suffered from the epistemological distortions and aporias wrought by violence, not least in the challenges posed to sustained fieldwork that is considered the hallmark of deep ethnography in the traditional sense of its meaning. In recent years scholarship has emerged from scholars of, and within Kashmir, exemplified by the Critical Kashmir Studies Collective that pushes against the boundaries of traditional ethnography.

August 5th, 2019 marked another turning point in the long history of the colonization of Kashmir, when India revoked the special status granted to Kashmir in the constitution under article 370, that had guaranteed it a form of limited autonomy since the partition of the subcontinent. Against the background of this long durée, critical Kashmir scholars are foregrounding the voices and experiences of people from Kashmir that have been expressed in different mediums and registers. We have an offering of a capacious ethnographic “field” and archive (novels, poetry, art, film, autobiography) that speaks to the silences and fabrications of scholarship tinted and tainted by majoritarian ideologies. Taking this to be ethnographic theory is more than an ethical gesture in this moment; it is the practice of a methodological approach that stands in line with decolonizing anthropology.

The readings included here go beyond the Kashmir Valley to include Azad Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan, Jammu, and Ladakh (Kargil and Leh). My own research among the predominantly Shi‘a Muslim population of Kargil taught me how these different regions are tied together, not just through shared cultural, religious and linguistic histories but also through the dynamics of militarization and occupation. Even if these regions are separated by political and governmental boundaries, the past will continue to bear down upon them puncturing the hubris of (post-) colonial nationalisms.  

A Desolation Called Peace: Voices from Kashmir (2019), edited by Ather Zia and Javaid Iqbal Bhat

Kashmiri academics, poets, novelists and journalists excavate the history of Kashmir through their memories of growing up in occupied Kashmir as well as how time spent outside the Valley sharpened their identity and aspirations for azadi (freedom). We get a glimpse into the impact of critical events such as the Gaw Kadal massacre in 1990, on nascent political consciousness (Khurram Parvez), to the affective attachments to Pakistan expressed through mundane events such as cricket matches (Shahnaz Bashir). Besides lending insight into specific political phases and events in individual chapters (e.g. G. R Malik, Z. M Zareef), and erasures in official historiography, in the introduction the editors also offer a succinct overall account of the history of the conflict in Kashmir. Here, the long durée of colonial occupation and resistance are revealed through little known snippets. For instance, stone-throwing as a mode of protest, though termed the “Kashmiri Intifada” for its similarity to Palestinian protests, can be traced back to the 16th century when Kashmir was annexed by Mughal rulers (p. 17). Historiography intersects with searing, poignant auto-ethnography through these pages, elevating a mood of reflection to a particular mode of scholarship.

Munnu: A boy from Kashmir (2015), by Malik Sajad

This is a coming of age autobiographical graphic novel about a boy called Munnu growing up in the 1990s when the people of the Kashmir Valley were caught between the violence of the Indian state and the popular armed insurgency. It too tells the history of Kashmir from the perspective of Kashmiris. The banality of evil is revealed in the vocabulary of children’s dreams and games, and the daily routines of living under militarization. Munnu, through his cartoons, speaks truth to power. The tone moves back and forth between scathing sarcasm (ambassadors of the EU to Kashmir are referred to as “programmed mannequins”) and pathos (“Several People were gunned down carrying the corpse of their friend who was gunned down earlier, to the graveyard…The rest ran for their lives, so the army vented their anger on the unresponsive corpse” p. 330) to sardonic matter-of-factness (while on a trip to Delhi, Munnu, assures his worried mother: “See you were freaking out for no reason. People here think I’m from Iran” p. 295).

Resisting Occupation in Kashmir (2018), edited by Haley Duchinksy, Mona Bhan, Ather Zia, and Cynthia Mahmood    

How is the impact of the violence of late modern colonial occupation made sense of discursively and psychically? Combining political and cultural analysis, contributions in this volume can be situated within a wider comparative field. These range from the distinctiveness of a new phase of resistance seen in youth culture (e.g. hip hop), to witnessing and martyrdom (epitaphs on graves), to discursive constructions in psychotherapy (the uses of trauma). Policemen too are scarred. Gowhar Fazili’s piece analyses the complex subjectivity of a Kashmiri police officer, who simultaneously claims fidelity to his community and his policing duties, showing us how occupied people get implicated in both resistance and collaboration.

Khoon Diy Baarav (Blood leaves its Trail), a Film, by Iffat Fatima

It becomes impossible to think of military violence in Kashmir through any kind of abstraction after watching Iffat Fatima’s film that focuses on the Association of the Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP); the mothers are its vanguard. They sing, cry, give speeches and stoically face the camera holding up the photos of their disappeared sons. We see how memory resists erasure. Modes of witnessing operate on multiple levels: the mothers, the filmmaker, and us, the audience.

“This is not a Performance!: Public Mourning and Visual Spectacle in Kashmir” (2014) by Deepti Misri in Beyond Partition: Gender, Violence and Representation in Postcolonial India.

Misri analyzes the visual strategies of the APDP. Drawing on bell hooks’ argument of the “oppositional gaze”, she shows us that these mothers are “not simply icons of grief”, but help us re-orient our gaze to really see, not like the state. See also the recently published, Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir (2019), by Ather Zia.

“Love in the time of Occupation: Reveries, longing, and intoxication in Kashmir” (in American Ethnologist, Vol 43, Issue 12016), by Saiba Varma

Military governance extends its tentacles into spaces of care. Saiba Varma’s ethnography in a state-run Drug De-addiction Centre (DDC) for young men in Srinagar contrasts their “public recovery narrative performances” (p. 55) with personal reveries of love to illustrate the phenomenology of defiance. Through reveries the patients, she argues, reclaim intoxication through Sufi understandings of love as “nasha”. Their addiction has often been triggered by the experience of love that does not conform to social conventions alongside the debilitation wrought by living in a militarized society. While the clinic takes a complete break from the past to be a sign of recovery in its attempts to produce amnesiac “reformed” subjects of the state, the patients resist this without direct confrontation.

Counterinsurgency, Democracy, and the Politics of Identity in India: From Warfare to Welfare (2014), by Mona Bhan

Turning the gaze away from the Kashmir Valley, while drawing upon its experience analytically, this book critically analyses the Indian military’s counterinsurgency operations in Ladakh. It is an intimate ethnography of the impact of militarization on the everyday life of Brogpas, a “quasi-Buddhist” ethnic minority living along the Line of Control between India and Pakistan in the Muslim-majority Kargil district. Through appropriation of villagers’ labour, we learn how border dwellers are incorporated into the state’s security regime. They in turn mobilize the language of duty, loyalty and service to the nation as idioms of inclusion within a regional field of ethic and religious identity politics. Bhan tracks how the Indian army combines ideologically incompatible state-security and human-security perspectives in Ladakh to further their counterinsurgency agenda without resort to exceptional violence.

On Uncertain Ground: Displaced Kashmiri Pandits in Jammu and Kashmir (2017), by Ankur Datta

Not all Kashmiri Pandits are celebrating the alleged “integration of Kashmir into India” since the revocation of its special status in the Indian Constitution. Without diminishing the trauma of their displacement from the Valley in 1989-1990, many feel that their pain is being weaponized by the Indian state (see Trisal, Washington Post, August 22, 2019).  Datta’s book provides a nuanced analysis of the predicaments of displaced Kashmiri Pandits in Jammu. Despite nostalgia for their lost homeland and the painful memories of displacement, many do not seek to return even as they seek “roots in a safe and secure place” (p. 35). They are caught between “loss of prior status” and “discontent with the present” (p. 22); there has been no easy “integration” with their fellow Hindus in Jammu. Their politics of recognition as victims is also caught between making claims on the state based on the uniqueness of their experience and asserting kinship with other communities who have been through a similar experience of conflict-induced internal displacement. This is perhaps the only full-fledged ethnography of Kashmiri Pandits after their exodus from the Valley. It also takes us inside camps for “migrants” set up by the Indian state, in this case those deemed citizens.

Body of Victim, Body of Warrior: Refugee Families and the Making of Kashmiri Jihadists (2013), by Cabeiri DeBergh Robinson

Is the distinction between “victims” and “perpetrators” of violence always clear-cut? Robinson’s ethnography among displaced Kashmiri refugees who were living along the LoC and have found refuge in Azad Jammu and Kashmir destabilizes these categories. She tracks the shifts in regional political culture from the value accorded to hijarat as a kind of “protective migration” to become mujahirs (refugees) in the early years to the value of becoming mujahids (warriors) who engage in jihad (armed struggle) as a way to possibly return to their homes in the 1990s. The social and political devaluation of “refuge-seeking” gives way to jihad as a form of self-defense of the Kashmiri body against torture and sexual violence rather than territory. Young men are drawn to armed struggle not through indoctrination in mosques but family and personal networks. An analysis of the “social production of jihad” is set against a background of the south Asian refugee regime. Robinson also examines the ethical debates, cultural aesthetics and aspirations that constitute the practices of jihad, of which visible violence is only a small part.

Delusional States: Feeling Rule and Development in Pakistan’s Northern Frontier (2019), by Nosheen Ali

In contrast to the Kashmir Valley, the Shia Muslims of Kargil have historically performed and expressed loyalty to India. Their “yearning for recognition and inclusion” (p. 2) is mirrored on the other side of the LoC in the Pakistani-administered region of Gilgit-Baltistan. Ali narrates the dynamics of seemingly contradictory emotions such as love and betrayal that imbue political subjectivity in this Shia-dominated region of Pakistan to show us how “the Kashmir conflict is affectively structured and experienced on the ground” (ibid.). The book is not merely about “local” sentiments. Its argument about the delusional nature of the modern nation-state seen in its anxieties and grand posturing in regions like Gilgit-Baltistan reveal the paranoia of military states everywhere. Fear is produced and sustained and subjects enlisted in the state-security project by the Pakistani state by stoking sectarian differences. Delusional states thrive by “producing a state of disorder” (p. 10), including those at the heart of empire. Ali’s scholarship is also a testimony to resisting deeply racialized and gendered anxieties that underline academic gatekeeping at the centers of empire (p. 24). The “local”, by which her work was sought to be circumscribed, cannot be understood outside the imperial context of the Cold War and the war on terror.

For a comprehensive list of readings on Kashmir, see the bibliography produced by the Critical Kashmir Studies Collective on their Facebook page. Most of the readings have been made available online.

The Lives of Signs and Signs of Lives

Shaila Seshia Galvin

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva

November 2019

School mornings, in my home at least, rarely afford hospitable moments for thinking about ethnographic theory. But a few weeks ago, walking with my children to school, I noticed the appearance overnight of cardboard signs tied with string around the thick, deeply grooved trunks of some thirty oak trees that line the path we follow each day. All of the signs were handwritten, often in an array of multi-coloured inks, paints, and oil pastels. On some, the lettering looped and curved, on others it was narrow and pointed. Virtually every sign was written in more than one language. Each one included a hashtag. For example:

#My name is


#Je m’appelle Paula

What might it mean to name a tree? Or rather, for a tree to bear a sign declaring “#Je m’appelle Fred”? Initially I thought that these signs must be a Halloween trick, perhaps a joke of some sort, so unusual and out-of-place was their form in this corner of Geneva. I was also fairly convinced that the extremely efficient municipal services in our neighbourhood would ensure they soon disappeared. But they have remained, even though November’s unforgiving winds and rain caused some of them to tear from the string, or fold over on themselves, and the colours to bleed into sodden cardboard.

Anthropology has much to say about names and practices of naming.  Reviewing an edited volume on the subject, Martin Holbraad notes “how names constitute or dissolve persons, how they reveal or conceal, how they cross or maintain cosmological and social boundaries, how they temporalize or are themselves temporalized, and how they work as instruments of power.” Efforts to theorize naming have focused on the significance of names in notions of personhood and also place. Mauss’s 1938 essay on the person, quoted by João de Pina-Cabral in the inaugural entry for this series, takes the practice of naming, and names themselves, as revealing of shifting ideas of the person.

After a day or two of walking and cycling back and forth from the school, mystified now as much by the persistence of the signs as by their appearance in the first place, I could not help but wonder whether this naming of trees was nudging passers-by to consider trees as persons. Could it be understood, somehow, as an effort to challenge and transgress the limits of what is typically taken to be the provenance of human social worlds? Was the act of placing these signs around these trees also a kind of reckoning, as Theodoros Kyriakides (drawing on Isabelle Stengers) has suggested, with “the present as everyday life haunted by a backdrop of potential extinction which structures imagination and being in the world?”

I have no answers these questions, nor to the many others that one could pose in relation to the life of these signs, and the lives that they name (what to make of the hashtag, for example?).  Their origins remain a mystery, though it seems potential extinction may have brought forth this act of naming.  As we passed by one day, a seven-year-old friend of my daughter volunteered that names had been given to the trees so that they would not be cut down. A little google-ing led me to a newspaper article published a month prior detailing how, amid ongoing processes of densification and property development in our neighbourhood, the trees were being felled in order to expand the adjacent narrow two-lane road.

These signs, then, appeared also to be an act of protest and, perhaps, a plea to see the world (or at least these trees) differently. But the key in which this protest registered seemed different from other resistance struggles mounted in response to the felling (or burning) of trees and forests. Iconic images of the Chipko movement, from the state of Uttarakhand where I conducted my doctoral research, depict trees marked for commercial timber extraction embraced by women whose lives and livelihood are intertwined with them. Elsewhere, resistance has taken the form of tree-sitting, featuring people dramatically occupying trees. In the Brazilian Amazon, deforestation, and resistance to it, unfolds through violence that is both physical and structural. These forms of resistance have people’s lives at their centre, at times visibly and tragically so.

Along the line of trees that I follow, however, human presence is traceable only through signs that, in language and naming, call attention to the humanity of trees. If, as Eduardo Kohn suggested in his provocation that forests think, part of moving anthropology beyond the human involves conceiving of representation beyond linguistic and symbolic realms, it seems both paradoxical and telling that written signs affixed to trees push out everyday ontological boundaries. Naming illuminates more than human relations too.

In his 1954 doctoral research on Hanunóo agriculture, Hal Conklin noted that the Hanunóo had over 1,600 names for different plant types. Hanunóo Agriculture, published a few years later, contains a six-page table listing adjacently Hanunóo, English, and Latin botanical names for 87 crops planted in Hanunóo swiddens. Conklin’s ethnography upended received understandings of swidden agriculture and problematized conventional divisions of the wild and domestic, nature and culture, forest and field, in ways that very much speak to more recent engagements with these anthropological problems. As others have noted, it did so not through directly engaging theoretical issues, but through meticulous ethnography produced, among other things, by endless questioning.

Fine ethnography is also a characteristic that Smita Lahiri notes in the work of Mary Steedly. Though in many respects their work could not be more different, Conklin’s attention to practices of agriculture that have long been misrecognized and Steedly’s interest in the non-recognition of women’s speech and stories share some broad similarity. In Rifle Reports, Steedly remarks how she approached her study of popular nationalism not with the intention of “solving” a puzzle, but through an effort to “retain a sense of puzzlement, to use it as a guide…” These two extraordinary ethnographers seem to strive in their work for something different from portable concepts and generalizable explanatory or diagnostic frameworks. What might this mean for how we think about ethnographic theory? As notions of what does and doesn’t count as theory seem to harden through the expectations, practices, and structures that shape scholarly work, their scholarship offers examples of how ethnographic theory resides in different places. Perhaps, and maybe even most of all, in an abiding sense of puzzlement?


I am grateful to Michael Dove and Patricia Spyer who, respectively, introduced me to the depth, significance, and insight to be found in the work of Hal Conklin and Mary Steedly.


Conklin, Harold C., “The Relation of Hanunóo Culture to the Plant World,”(PhD diss., Yale University, 1954).

––––. Hanunóo Agriculture: A Report on an Integral System of Shifting Cultivation in the Philippines.  Northford: Elliott’s Books, 1957.

Holbraad, Martin. “The Anthropology of Names and Naming, by Gabrielle Vom Bruck and Barbara Bodenhorn.” American Ethnologist 35, no. 1 (2008): 1030-33.

Kohn, Eduardo. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.

Steedly, Mary Margaret. Rifle Reports: A Story of Indonesian Independence.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.

Ethnographic theory in catastrophic times

Theodoros Kyriakides

Department of Social and Political Sciences

University of Cyprus

October 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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