Botanical Kinships: A Tangled Taxonomy

Amy Leia McLachlan

University of Chicago & Field Museum of Natural History

May 16, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing plants in kinship: botany and gender in genealogical reckoning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing kin as plants: unfamiliar kinships in the altered present

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

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

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

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

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

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


Archambault, Julie Soleil. 2016. “Taking Love Seriously in Human-Plant Relations in Mozambique: Toward an Anthropology of Affective Encounters.” Cultural Anthropology. 31(2): 244-271. Link

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pratt, Mary Louise. 1992. “Ch.2 Science, Planetary Consciousness, Interiors.” Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London; New York: Routledge. Link

Ries, Nancy. 2009. “Potato Ontology Surviving Postsocialism in Russia.” Cultural Anthropology. 24(2): 181-212. Link

Rival, Laura. 1998. “Domestication as a Historical and Symbolic Process: Wild Gardens and Cultivated Forests in the Ecuadorian Amazon.” Advances in Historical Ecology. Balée, William, ed. New York: Columbia University Press. Link

Schiebinger, Londa. 1993. “Ch. 1 The Private Lives of Plants.” Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science. Boston: Beacon Press. Link

Schiebinger, Londa 2005. “Agnotology and Exotic Abortifacients: The Cultural Production of Ignorance in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 149(3): 316-343. Link

Sharpe, Christina. 2016. “Lose Your Kin.” The New Inquiry. Link

Tompkins, Peter & Bird, Christopher. 1973. The Secret Life of Plants. New York: Harper & Row. Link

The Secret Life of Plants (film, 1979) Link

Wonder, Stevie. The Secret Life of Plants: Vol 1 & 2 (1979) Link

Yokawa, K., Kagenishi, T., Pavlovič, A., Gall, S., Weiland, M., Mancuso, S., and Baluška, F. 2017. “Anaesthetics stop diverse plant organ movements, affect endocytic vesicle recycling and ROS homeostasis, and block action potentials in Venus flytraps.” Annals of Botany. 122(5): 747–756. Link

On Ethnographic Methods

Kathryn Mariner

Department of Anthropology
University of Rochester

January 25, 2022

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional References:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critical Philosophy of Race

Kimberly Ann Harris

Department of Philosophy
Marquette University

September 16, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading List/Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Data, Platforms, and Bias

Johannes Lenhard & Alexandrine Royer

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

April 15, 2021

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

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

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

How did we even get here? 

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

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

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

Additional readings (the basics):

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

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

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

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

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

Data as knowledge and control 

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

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

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

Algorithmic bias 

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

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

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

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

Public Anthropology

Andrea E. Pia

Department of Anthropology
London School of Economics and Political Science

April 1, 2021

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

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

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

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

What anthropology is for? 

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

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

The University 

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

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

Operationalising Anthropology

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

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

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

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

De-textualising anthropology

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

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

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

The Anthropology of Cinema

Chihab El Khachab

Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies
University of Cambridge

March 15, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more about Chihab’s work at

Chronic Present

Lukas Ley

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

September 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital ethnography

Heikki Wilenius

Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology

University of Helsinki

August 2020

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

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

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

All the references are listed in chronological order.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, everybody!

Anthropologies of the Future

Felix Ringel

Department of Anthropology

Durham University

& Sonja Moghaddari

Department of Sociology and Social Research

University of Trento

June 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Theories of the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethnographies of the future 

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

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

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

Further reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anthropological Engagements with the Far-Right

Antje Berger, Annika Lems and Christine Moderbacher

Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle

February 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Way of Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cited Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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