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

Kathrin Eitel

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

July 15, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Ethnographic theory: A product of observation, reflection … and travel

Noel B. Salazar

Cultural Mobilities Research (CuMoRe)

Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

September 2019

To answer the question what ethnographic theory is and to understand how it comes about, we first need to agree on the meaning of the constituent parts, namely ‘ethnography’ and ‘theory’. Within the discipline of anthropology, the former concept is used in multiple ways. While etymologically ethnography refers to the written report of an ethnic group studied, nowadays the notion indicates both the methodology involved—a loose assemblage of fieldwork-based methods such as participant observation and interviews—and the produced end result, which can range from various forms of texts to audio-visual output and beyond (Salazar In Press).

Theory, on the other hand, refers to a structured set of ideas intended to explain something. Interesting to note here is that theory etymologically stems from the Greek words theoros (spectator) and theoria (contemplation, speculation). The more an observer ‘watches’ a phenomenon—bearing witness to it—the more he or she is invited to think profoundly about it. In other words, many theories derive from sustained observational processes, a practice that anthropologists have come to associate with ethnography (as fieldwork methodology). The dominant thinking within anthropology is that ethnographic fieldwork ideally should produce new (or corroborate existing) anthropological theory.

Apart from the observation and the reflection, there is another aspect of theory that is equally important but often overseen. James Clifford reminded us of it when he wrote: ‘“Theory” is a product of displacement, comparison, a certain distance. To theorize you must leave home’ (Clifford 1989). Let us return for a moment to the ancient Greeks (without whom we would not be having this discussion in the first place). In ancient Greece, theoroi (observers) travelled ‘elsewhere’, among others to see and experience something new, to learn new things. We expect the same thing from an ethnographer. The rationale is that experiencing ‘Otherness’, which implies leaving one’s personal comfort zone and known environment (Clifford’s metaphorical ‘home’), leads to new insights and, eventually, novel anthropological theories.

The basic idea behind this reasoning is much older and much more widespread than most anthropologists realize. The idea of transformation through travel, broadly interpreted, has always fascinated people (Salazar 2018). In the Mediterranean region, Moses’s biblical exodus or Homer’s Odyssey are two legendary transformative journey narratives. The word ‘odyssey’ itself has come to mean a difficult and transformative journey. The Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh narrates the makeover the king of Uruk undergoes through traveling. The story of Jason and the Argonauts, one of the most popular from Greek mythology (that inspired, among others, Bronislaw Malinowski), is an epitome of the human ‘quest’—journeying to reach a destination or a destiny. In the Persian tale of Shahnameh, Rostam and his son Sohrab undertake journeys and suffer to win the title of a hero. The medieval theme of the pilgrim on the road of life appears in the opening verse of Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy) and is also employed by Geoffrey Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales.

Such imaginative journeys are intricately linked to the more widespread role of travel (and displacement) in age-old rites of passage and transition in many cultures. One could also think here of the tales of shamanic transformation journeys to the edge, where trials are undergone and power is confronted, then won. In sum, there are multiple links between concepts for travel, transition and experience, especially the prevalence of journeying metaphors to describe all manners of change, along with life itself. The idea of travel-as-transformation keeps on reappearing in a broad range of cultural fields: in myths, folklore and fairy tales, in arts and music, film, poetry, novels and other literary genres, and in psychological theory and therapy.

Ethnographic fieldwork, too, is often considered an important rite of passage. ‘Surviving’ the first fieldwork experience, usually in the context of doctoral research, is seen as one of the breaking points in becoming an anthropologist. Important here is the aspect of duration. ‘Otherness’ needs time to unveil itself, as does reflective introspection. Ethnographic theory thrives on the principle of serendipity, the art of making unsought findings (Rivoal and Salazar 2013). Interestingly, the concept of serendipity itself is derived from another transformative travel tale, namely The Three Princes of Serendip, a Persian story in which the main characters travel around making fantastic and unexpected discoveries.

The reliance on serendipity makes anthropology by necessity a ‘slow science’. This, of course, goes radically against the currently dominant political and economic demand for (very) rapid knowledge production and innovation. The general trend to shorten the time allotted to obtain a doctoral degree, as set by funding agencies and university administrations alike, has dramatic consequences for ethnographic theory. At many universities, periods of fieldwork ‘elsewhere’ have become much shorter than they used to be. Because of this, there is a general tendency to choose ‘easier’ fieldwork sites, ones that require less preparation time (and, thus, sites that tend to be less ‘different’, less ‘unknown’). Moreover, the ‘Otherness’ encountered during fieldwork may be understood less profoundly (among others because there is little or no time to learn local languages and not enough time to establish relations of trust). What kind of ethnographic theory can develop productively in such circumstances?

To recapitulate, behind the question on how to define and understand ethnographic theory hides a discussion about how (anthropological) knowledge is or should be produced. Going back to the etymological roots of the concepts teaches us a lot about the core characteristics that define how theory is created and the ethnographic variant of this creative process. Unfortunately, because of the changed structural conditions in which anthropologists must conduct research nowadays, the essential travail (toil) that is associated with transformative travel (and, thus, with ethnographic theory) is disappearing.


Clifford, James. 1989. “Notes on travel and theory.” Inscriptions 5:1-7.

Rivoal, Isabelle, and Noel B. Salazar. 2013. “Contemporary ethnographic practice and the value of serendipity.” Social Anthropology 21 (2):178-185.

Salazar, Noel B. 2018. Momentous mobilities: Anthropological musings on the meanings of travel. Oxford: Berghahn.

Salazar, Noel B. In Press. “The writing behind the written.” In Writing anthropology: Essays on craft and commitment, edited by Carole McGranahan. Durham: Duke University Press.

Can ethnographic theory incorporate history? by Susana de Matos Viegas

Susana de Matos Viegas

Institute of Social Sciences

University of Lisbon

February 2019

The renewal of Malinowski’s empiricism in the 1990s can be considered as a first and critical step in the emergence of new ways of performing anthropology through what has been called ethnographic theory. In his monograph on democracy in Ilhéus (a city in the neighbourhood of the place where I carried out my fieldwork), Márcio Goldman (2006) retrieves an idea he had put forward several years before (2001). Using the “ethnographic theory of the magic word” proposed by Malinowski in Coral Gardens and their Magic, and drawing also inspiration in Paul Veyne, Goldman addresses ethnographic theory as an “explicitness ”, suggesting that what is at stake is to explain deeply, even if only a specific topic (Goldman 2006: 28). This does not mean shrinking but enlarging a scale of explanation. Goldman argues that the difference between native, ethnographic and scientific theories should be located not in the binomial error/truth, but rather in different configurations or scales, the role of scientific theories being that of dealing with more encompassing scales (ibid.)

As João de Pina-Cabral reminded us in the NET’s first post (2018), ethnographic theory implies a radical rejection of “chronocentrism”, that is, in a propositional way, a substantive conviction that the legacy of dense ethnographies – even those which were written by anthropologists in colonial situations – is crucial to achieve an enlargement of anthropological knowledge scales. The language of magic in Coral Gardens is a telling example of an ethnographic classic text of that kind based, amongst others, on the kind of synchronism from which ethnography emerged. The question I propose to open in this text is, therefore: Can ethnographic theory incorporate history?

The scale of what Malinowski could do with the language of magic in the 1930s does not bear comparison with that which allowed, for instance, Mark S. Mosko (2017) to understand Baloma spirit-ancestors among the Trobriand islanders. Decades of ethnographies on different parts of the world conceived as in relation – as Marilyn Strathern would say – make it possible for ethnography not to be trapped in synchronism.

As a dimension of ethnographic theory, history can thus be considered as a question of scale. In this sense, it is similar to the problem of comparison, that is to say, a question of generalization, removed from the aporia of a contradiction between the particular and the general (Viegas 2011). Goldman summons this perspective as one of the advantages of Malinowski’s “ethnographic theory” as it appears in Coral Gardens, in which Malinowski aimed at “constructing a model for the understanding of language and magic that, although produced from and for a particular context, could potentially function as a matrix for deciphering these phenomena in other contexts. This, I believe, is one of the alternatives at anthropology’s disposal that enable it to escape the known paradoxes of the particular and the general.” (Goldman 2001: 159).

A successful example of incorporating history into ethnographic theory is Peter Gow’s An Amazonian myth and its history (2001). Retrieving Claude Levi-Strauss’ vision on the transformation of Amerindian myths from Lowland South America Amerindians, Gow argues that the work of Levi-Strauss forces one to remake basic attitudes towards the history of the Americas: “an anthropological analysis that uses historical methods must start from ethnography, and from the problems ethnography presents. Ethnography is to anthropological investigation what the ‘primary sources’ are to historians” (Gow 2001: 20). If one looks at history not from the perspective of the arrival of colonizers and the subsequent domination and violence exerted upon the indigenous peoples, but rather from the point of view of situating those relations along time, in ways of being in history, processes of transformation as described by Lévi-Strauss to discuss myths are more accurate to understand the history of America. When ethnography sets the starting point to approach history we then achieve a historical perspective that is neither circumscribed to an ethnohistory nor to a history of colonialism.

From the viewpoint of the region I know best—the Atlantic forest of south Bahia—it is critical to integrate the living experience to understand historical processes. It allows one to understand, for instance, how the multiplicity of indigenous peoples pertaining to the long history of the Tupi who inhabit the vast Atlantic coastal area of Brazil, do not merely survive, but rather are living for centuries in a situation of brutal clashes with alien forms of living, and have superseded multiple theories of history which assumed their integration to be imminent. Seeing these historical processes through the perspective of the lived experience of indigenous people, their way of dealing with meanings of setting and/or moving in the land, which is key to Amerincanist debates in anthropology, is a way of paying attention to larger historical processes through the lenses of ethnographic theory.

In brief, not only does ethnographic theory encompass and integrate history, but in itself, it is a form of performing history—one of the major challenges of contemporary anthropology.


Goldman, Marcio. 2001. “An Ethnographic Theory of Democracy. Politics from the Viewpoint of Ilhéus’s Black Movement (Bahia, Brazil)”. Ethnos 66(2): 157-80.

Goldman,Marcio. 2006. “Introdução: Antropologia da política e teoria etnográfica da democracia”. Como funciona a democracia: uma teoria etnográfica da política. 7Letras. Rio de Janeiro, pp. 23-51.(english translation 2013: How Democracy Works: An Ethnographic Theory of Politics. Sean Kingston Publishing. Canon Pyon.

Gow, Peter. 2001. An Amazonian myth and its history. Oxford University Press. Oxford.

Mosko, Mark S. 2017. Ways of Baloma: rethinking Magic and Kinship from the Trobriands. Hau Books. Chicago.

Pina-Cabral, João de. 2018. Guest posts: What is Ethnographic Theory: – a response to EASA NET.

Viegas, Susana de Matos. 2011. “Can anthropology make valid generalizations? Feelings of belonging in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest”. In Toren, Christina and João de Pina Cabral (eds). The Challenge of Epistemology: anthropological perspectives. Berghahn books, Oxford, pp. 147-162.

What is Ethnographic Theory?

João de Pina-Cabral

School of Anthropology and Conservation

University of Kent

October 2018

When I was asked to help determine the meaning of the expression Ethnographic Theory (ET), I thought of the words of Samuel ibn Naghrillah, a reputed Talmudic scholar and vizir of Granada in the tenth century. He wrote in a poem that “Wisdom comes from knowing we are not here forever.” I take this to be a declaration of the rootedness of the human presence in the world—each one of us a person with a particular history. The following, then, is a brief declaration of my views on the topic. I am sure that five years ago and five years hence, were I to be asked the same question, I would provide different answers. I hope, however, that by setting down what I think today about it, I can still be useful to myself and others in five years’ time.

Academic ethnography, as it evolved over the past two centuries, is a mode of evidence gathering in the social sciences and humanities that involves a large panoply of methods and techniques, all of which are integrated ultimately by a focus on the intersubjective encounter between the student and the studied. In its broadest sense, then, ET is a conception of anthropology that sees it as fundamentally rooted in personal encounter. By “study,” here, we mean the critical analysis of evidence concerning the human world which is gathered along the principles that have evolved over time in the social scientific tradition. By “person,” we mean a member of the human species that, in early ontogeny, accessed propositional thinking, namely by the acquisition of language. This does not mean that anthropology is a study of only person’s about person’s—far from it. What it means is that the primary condition for anthropologists and ethnographers to access the knowledge that they seek is their own condition as persons.

In consequence, ET sees the social sciences and the humanities as part of the broader process of human communication, rooted in space and time and in permanent evolution. It radically disregards the possibility of any approach that believes in an ultimate truth. In turn, from a spatial point of view, this implies that the scientific enterprise merges with the very long term of the process of a human occupation of the world and, more recently, with the emergence of a global ecumene that has occurred at ever greater speeds since the mid fifteenth century. ET, therefore, is necessarily ecumenical, in the sense that it sees the possibility of achieving understanding between humans as an open process in permanent evolution. Consequently, it rejects the possibility of existence of “other sciences” (“Other anthropologies”), since it sees the scientific task as a process of growing human encompassment.

From a temporal point of view, this means that ET radically rejects chronocentrism, such as has been the dominant mode of writing anthropological history throughout the twentieth century. If we attend to ET, then we cannot believe that past thinkers were more ‘wrong’ than we are today. We cannot believe that present knowledge cancels out the validity of the knowledge gathered in the past. The standard chronocentrist form of writing anthropological history involves the setting of a parameter of relevance before which “all anthropologists were … (some term of abuse)”; whether this is “coloniality,” “patriarchality,” “structural-functionalism,” “evolutionism” … whatever.  This mode—which is so useful to the lazy and the greedy—should be fought with all our strength, as it constitutes one of the more dangerously obscurantist aspects of our discipline.

Such an approach to history is blind to the practitioner’s own rootedness in ideological constraints. It demonizes uncritically the blindness of past anthropologists and ethnographers, whilst failing to realize that, in doing so, it is contributing towards hiding the ideological constraints of present anthropologists and ethnographers. Is there anyone of us that can honestly claim to be outside and beyond human history? Has there ever been any person who has escaped the binds of hegemony—in the sense of the rooting of all human communication within processes of constitution of power? The answer must be negative.

For example, why do those who today rubbish past anthropology as “colonial” fail to see that they are instruments of an equally perverse form of imperiality? If the knowledge produced by Fortes or Gluckman is made useless due to the evils of mid-century colonialism, is ours not equally useless due to what is happening in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Syria? How can a person who teaches in Washington, London or New York feel that they can raise above the constraints of history? Scientific analytical critique is a constant, ever-evolving process. The central strength and tool of ET is its disposition to acknowledge the practitioner’s own historicity (in phylogenesis, in sociogenesis, and in ontogenesis).

If I get it right, then, the primary task of ET is the systematic examination of the conditions of possibility of the ethnographic gesture in the present and past existence of our discipline. By ‘ethnographic gesture’ we mean the movement that takes the ethnographer away from his pre-analytical everyday world, to a world which he or she queries for analytical purposes. Academic ethnography has evolved as a disciplined mode of accumulation of evidence concerning human sociality that involves the direct intersubjective participation of the researcher in the field of research. As a result, more than merely a cognitive disposition, ET is an attitude, a mode of being in the social sciences that has ethical and cognitive concerns which are rooted in an ecumenical and broadly historicist approach to the human condition.

Let me finish with a deferential bow to one of the greatest believers in ET, Marcel Mauss. In 1938, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, and as Nazism consolidated its power in Italy, Germany and France, Marcel Mauss was invited to come to London to give the Huxley Memorial Lecture at the Royal Anthropological Institute. He delivered his famous essay on the person that we have all read. Allow me to extract some of the sibylline words with which he ends it:

“Who knows what progress Understanding will make on this matter? (…) Who knows even whether this ‘category’ [of person], which all of us here believe to be well grounded, will always be recognized as such? It is formulated only for us, among us. Even its moral strength—the sacred character of the human person—is questioned (…) in the very countries where this principle was uncovered. We have great possessions to defend, as the idea could disappear with us. Let us not moralize.// But let us not also speculate too much. Social anthropology, sociology, history teach us to see that human thinking ‘moves on’ (…); it does so in slow articulation along the most hazardous tracks, through time, through societies, their contacts and metamorphoses. We must then strive to achieve the best way of becoming aware of ourselves, so as to perfect our thought and express it better.” (1938: 281, my translation)

In light of the political developments that we have been witnessing of late in North and South America, in Eurasia and in the Middle-East, can any of us fail to share his sense of foreboding with an impending moral collapse?

On Nonrecognition and Feminist Epistemology: Doing Ethnographic Theory with Mary Steedly

Smita Lahiri

Department of Anthropology and International Affairs

University of New Hampshire

January 2019

What was the project of “ethnographic theory” as originally conceived, and what might it yet become? The answer to the first part of the question can be found in the foreword to the inaugural issue of HAU: The Journal of Ethnographic Theory, which invoked a lost golden age of intellectual vibrancy with open nostalgia. As recently as the 1980s, it noted, anthropology’s “original and distinctive conceptual wealth” had drawn interlocutors from across the humanities, engendering landmark debates at disciplinary borders.[i] Far too much of current anthropological theorizing, by contrast, was derivative, parochial, and overly reliant on Continental thought, even though the discipline’s potential for relevance had arguably never been higher. To get past these doldrums, it was necessary to find a way back, to rediscover the power of cultural translation. Anthropologists should take another look at how the Old Masters (and Mistresses, of course), had unsettled the categories of social theory by yoking them to “stranger-concepts” within local life worlds. The fact that these worlds were as or more likely to be peopled by cold pressed olive oil producers than by cargo cultists only strengthened the case.

Within a little over six years of its launch, HAU went from being a rag-tag, open-access upstart to boasting one of the highest impact factors amongst journals in cultural anthropology. Its new-old articulation of “ethnographic theory” gave it a unique brand identity: highbrow yet cheeky, retro but not stodgy. And then, between last June and December, came a storm of accusations and revelations that roiled the journal and its far-flung publics. Initial disclosures of a toxic work environment, in which HAU’s editor-for-life (a figure previously associated with this blog) had exploited and mistreated staff and contributors, were succeeded by apologies and resignations that delineated how the journal’s unaccountable leadership structure and opaque editorial process had fostered this miasma.[ii]

This post has little to add to the extensive body of commentary generated by the HAU affair. As a sporadic but generally appreciative reader of the journal who only saw its implosion from the sidelines, what I can say is that its call to return to ethnographically-based theorizing still resonates with me. I have always loved reading and teaching anthropological classics (or at least some of them), and the philosophy major buried within me in is still captivated by the Aristotelian idea of theoria as an essentially practical activity. At some point on the way to becoming an anthropologist, however, the discipline’s relentless reification of “theory” wore down my defenses. Once I was vulnerable to theory’s insidious mystique, its signature blend of awe, ambition, and feelings of inadequacy, I slid right into the habits described so precisely by da Col and Graeber: the “piecemeal reading, the assemblage of micro-excerpts, [the] fishing for catchy concepts whilst anxiously fast-scrolling through a webpage.”[iii] No wonder HAU’s 2011 clarion call to recuperate a compelling future from anthropology’s potency-filled past struck a chord in me: like any demoralized soul, I was ready for a revitalization movement.

Fast forward seven years to 2018. At the very moment when the “HAU Mess”[iv] began to unspool in public view, I was coming to terms with a personal and professional loss: the death in early January of Mary Margaret Steedly, an anthropologist of Indonesia, narrative, history, memory, and nationalism. In the way of things, these two seemingly disconnected events have come together. Along with some of her other colleagues, students, and friends, I’ve recently mourned Mary and celebrated her legacy at the AAAs in San Jose and at a symposium at Harvard, where she taught.[v] Part group therapy and part theoria, these invigorating and consoling experiences have brought me to a richer understanding of Steedly’s work as a model of what ethnographic theory can be.

Coming after Me Too, HAU’s public drubbing has been seen in some quarters as a consequence or comeuppance for pursuing a notion of ethnographic theory that appeared to disregard feminist anthropology’s contributions.[vi] Whether or not one agrees, that disregard was surely unfortunate, especially given that there was much common ground between feminist epistemology and HAU’s vision of ethnographic theory. Both projects stand for the rejection of decontextualized theory, the grounding of knowledge creation in particulars, and the intellectually transformative potential of intersubjective relationships. These were certainly hallmarks of the work of Mary Steedly, who was a leading member of the first generation of post-Writing Culture feminist ethnographers.

Steedly’s widely praised first book, Hanging without a Rope (1993), encapsulated the transitional moment in which it appeared.[vii] In structure and sensibility, it was holistic and exquisitely attuned to interconnections between kinship, religion, economy, landscape and history in Karoland, West Sumatra. Yet it was also informed by deep engagements with an idiosyncratic set of literary and disciplinary works: Althusser and Bakhtin, Faulkner and Calvino, subaltern studies and film theory. Working within many of the genre conventions of classic ethnography, Steedly pursued an avant-garde obsession with political subjectivity through her focus on storytelling. Hanging is dense with odd, fragmentary tales of thwarted love affairs, quixotic adventures, escapades in trade, and entanglements with spirits in spooky settings. Steedly develops or rather co-performs these minor themes in island Southeast Asian ethnography in partnership with her interlocutors, each of whom is delineated individually and unforgettably. The real subject of the book is how storytelling says the unsayable: how when people tell culturally shaped stories about real or fantasized personal experience, they very often (and in spite of their intentions) encode their own incomplete or eccentric recruitment by ideology. In this way, Hanging’s central subject itself bore a dual aspect, as if caught between two countries of anthropology in the wake of the Partition-like event of Writing Culture.

Notwithstanding the high-concept fancywork that informs it, the genesis of Hanging lay in Steedly’s itch to explain her recurrent and initially unwelcome observation that Karo women’s public speech usually fell short of the standards of coherence, significance set by senior men: it was simply less compelling. So, she began instead to collect women’s as well as men’s recountings of personal experience. Most fascinating to her were those that embodied “obtuseness,” a concept she took from Roland Barthes. Idiosyncratic and often hard to follow, “starting somewhere familiar. . . but swooping into uncertainties and narrative dead-ends,” these narratives did not so much subvert dominant common sense as reflect it from an odd angle. In recalling a long-lost cousin and sweetheart, a woman’s longing for the man himself could slip into her longing for the adventures she imagined him to have had; in her indulgent attitude towards the uncouth spirits who visited her, a spirit medium might commit an unwitting transgression. In the act of recounting, storytellers sometimes constituted themselves as “partial subjects” (or “double agents”) of ideology. But the estranging effects were fleeting, and the significance of the stories themselves – lacking as they did authority, memorability, durability—was always in question.  Steedly coined a devastating phrase to describe this ultimate triumph of ideology “the social production of ephemerality.”

While recently rereading Hanging Without a Rope after a gap of some twenty years, I was struck by its undimmed power as well as by the fact that it seems to have suffered a fate similar to the forms of nonrecognition of which Steedly wrote. At a time when “storytelling” is being embraced in corporate, clinical, policy, and activist settings, Steedly’s insights into how storytelling both does and doesn’t bring about empowerment and inclusion seem more important than ever. Yet my sense is that her theoretical contribution has not received the recognition it deserves. This seems to be the case even amongst those who have read and admired Steedly’s phenomenal second book Rifle Reports (2013), based on narratives of the Indonesian Revolution, or even her intervening essays on visual culture and media.[viii]

In her trenchant response to the implosion of HAU, Veronica Davidoff writes that ‘what gets recognized as theory is likely contingent on it announcing itself as theory.. a claim rooted in the entitlement and confidence that has historically been the provenance of men in academia.” It’s true that Mary Steedly did not frame or advance her claims as primarily theoretical ones – which is not to say that they were not intended as such. Reading her work reveals something more complex than diffidence, namely a desire to give these stories room to breathe. Her aim was to preserving the native “obtuseness” of her data in translation, not to swamp it with abstraction or tidy it into coherence. To put this more strongly, Steedly’s decision to foreground the cryptic elisions and luxuriant excesses of her material and to confine her own theoretical fancywork to the edges deserves to be recognized for what it is:  a praxis of ethnographic theorization.

Recuperating some classics is easier than others; a book as singular as Hanging Without a Rope doesn’t make it easy to pry its insights out of the material and put them in wider circulation.  But those who are interested in moving towards a more capacious ethnographic theory—one with more space for the tacit and fragmentary— will find powerful inspiration here. Ultimately, ethnographic theory needs feminist ethnography if it is to be a space for expansive and reflexive theorization rather than another engine to reproduce discipline-internal symbolic capital. Let’s add that to the list of takeaways from the HAU mess.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Karen Strassler, Patricia Spyer, Ann Marie Leshkowich, Manduhai Buyandelger, Carla Jones, and Tulasi Srinivas for our rich and recent conversations.

[i] Da Col, Giovanni, and David Graeber. “Foreword: The Return of Ethnographic Theory.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 1, no. 1 (September 1, 2011): vi–xxxv. https://doi.org/10.14318/HAU1.1.001.

[ii] Gershon, Ilana. “Pyramid Scheme. #hautalk.” Allegra, June 19, 2018. http://allegralaboratory.net/pyramid-scheme-hautalk/; Green, Sarah. “#HAUTALK: The Tyranny of Structurelessness and No End in Sight.”

Allegra, October 16, 2018. http://allegralaboratory.net/hautalk-the-tyranny-of-structurelessness-and-no-end-in-sight/.

[iii] Da Col and Graeber, xiii.

[iv] “HAU Mess” is the title of a Google Document that organized salient threads of the debate thematically for easy reference. Accessed January 14, 2019.

[v] Karen Strassler and Carla Jones organized the AAA roundtable entitled “The Said and the Unsaid: Honoring the Legacy of Mary Margaret Steedly”, which took place November 17; the Harvard Department of Anthropology’s symposium entitled “Other Voices, Other Stories: Mary Margaret Steedly’s Ethnographic Legacies” took place on December 1.

[vi] West, Paige. “Introduction: From Reciprocity to Relationality — Cultural Anthropology.” Accessed January 14, 2019. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/1526-introduction-from-reciprocity-to-relationality.

[vii] Steedly, Mary Margaret. Hanging without a Rope: Narrative Experience in Colonial and Postcolonial Karoland. Princeton Studies in Culture/Power/History. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1993.

[viii] Steedly, Mary Margaret. Rifle Reports: A Story of Indonesian Independence. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013; Spyer, Patricia, and Mary Margaret Steedly. Images That Move. First edition. School for Advanced Research Advanced Seminar Series. Santa Fe: SAR Press, 2013.