Anthropological Theory

Published by SAGE Publications
Online ISSN: 1463-4996
Publications
A range of linguistic constructions used to reckon time
Relational notation. 
Portability of calibration. 
Systemic properties of reckoning technologies. 
Ontological portability. 
Article
This essay is about meaning and measurement, with particular emphasis on the relation between semiotic technologies and temporal reckoning. It begins by theorizing four ways of framing time. Temporality as metricality focuses on the repetition of tokens of common types. Temporality as performativity focuses on the roots and fruits of a given event. Temporality as reckoning focuses on how one determines when an event occurred or how long an event lasted. And temporality as worldview focuses on the ways a given community (genre, public, discipline, philosophy, register, etc.) frames the nature of time. Temporality as reckoning is then used to question some entrenched claims about temporality as worldview. In particular, the claim that modern modes of temporality are ‘abstract’ (in comparison to so-called premodern, traditional, or everyday modes of temporality) is called into question. In place of pre-theoretical notions like abstraction (and similarly inadequate concepts, such as ‘commensuration,’ ‘quantification,’ and ‘objectification’) a set of fine-grained analytic distinctions is introduced. These may be used to theorize the conditions for and consequences of a technology being relatively portable: its meaningfulness being widely applicable and/or contextually independent. Reflexively, while this essay draws its examples and methods from the domain of time, its general claims are meant to be portable to other domains – from velocity and price to temperature and information.
 
Article
The establishment of moral relativism does not exhaust anthropological comparisons of how people strive for a good life. In this article I suggest that comparative research into ethical systems and moralities can be productively complemented by an anthropology of virtue. Experiences from post-Cold War settings and ethnographic examples from Australia and Namibia illustrate my attempt to outline such an anthropological theory of virtue based on recent anthropological work on art and on skill. The anthropological approach to virtue envisaged here is both nonconsequentialist and realist in orientation. It is non-consequentialist in that it accounts for the moral dimension of practices such as ‘sharing’ and ‘reciprocal exchange’ without relying on problematic presumptions about net results or ultimate consequences. It is realist in so far as it is based not on rationalist categories but on situated social practices, which entail reference to basic human goods such as sustenance and mutual engagement.
 
Article
L’objectiu d’aquest article es explorar el problema de l’ontologia social desenvolupant l’argument presentat en La construccion de la realidad social (1995). Despres de fer algunes distincions preliminars (seccio 1), l’article descriu l’estructura logica de la societat utilitzant tres conceptes: intencionalitat col·lectiva, assignacio de funcio, i regles i procediments constitutius (seccio 2). Es presenten alguns desenvolupaments posteriors d’aquest enfocament: l’analisi d’indicadors d’estatus i el cas de les institucions on existeix una funcio d’estatus pero no un objecte fisic sobre el qual s’imposa (seccio 3). Tambe es fan algunes observacions sobre la taxonomia dels fets institucionals (seccio 4), sobre la relacio entre l’analisi conceptual i les dades empiriques (seccio 5) i, finalment, sobre el concepte de fets institucionals (seccio 6).
 
Article
In this article, inspired by Lévi-Strauss’s comments on ‘qualitative mathematics’, I outline some features of Chinese cultural practices related to number and quantification. More specifically, I note that Chinese numerological practices are embedded in a more generally ‘structuralist’ and mathematical way of conceiving experience; that taken together they comprise a loose, and even ‘creative’ (rather than precise/rationalistic) type of life-accounting; and that number use in China is often emotionally loaded.
 
Article
Originally, the term ‘fetishes’ was used by European merchants to refer to objects employed in West Africa to make and enforce agreements, often between people with almost nothing in common. They thus provide an interesting window on the problem of social creativity - especially since in classic Marxist terms they were surprisingly little fetishized. Starting with an appreciation and critique of William Pietz’s classic work on the subject, and reconsidering classic cases of Tiv spheres of exchange and BaKongo sculpture, this article aims to reimagine African fetishes, and fetishes in general, as ways of creating new social relations.
 
Article
Users of contemporary media technology in religious settings often oscillate between immediacy in spiritual interaction and the increasing complexity and visibility of media technology as human artifacts. Drawing on approaches to mediation from philosophy and media theory, I examine Mauritian Muslims’ uses of sound reproduction in performing a devotional genre to show how theological assumptions about mediation shape the domestication of media technology in religious settings in different ways. A semiotic approach can throw new light on the dialectics of mediation and immediacy that frequently result in searches for technical solutions to bypass established forms of interacting with the divine.
 
Article
This article observes that dreams of treasure may not only be about getting rich. In Greece, a country with an illustrious ancient past and a less glorious present, history represents a vital national resource and enduring topic of social concern, not to say anxiety. Dreams of treasure arise as unconscious by-products of this intense historical consciousness in Greece. The treasures considered here are secretions of history, deposited at the moments of rupture that historians subsequently use to demarcate historical periods. Drawing upon the formulations of Heidegger and Binswanger, I further view these dreams as apperceptions of the temporality of being. The dream of treasure involves a divinatory look into the future to discover a past that will enrich the present. The motivations of historicization and temporalization thus converge in this case to create the dream of treasure as a significant cultural phenomenon in Greece.
 
Article
This article advocates an extensive definition of self as the totality of what an organism is physically, biologically, psychologically, socially, and culturally. This definition departs from the narrower definition of self as self-representation – as culturally shaped constructs of the self that one applies to oneself – that is current in cultural anthropology today. The article goes on to elucidate recent neurobiological thinking – specifically, the model of the interpreter developed by Michael Gazzinaga and his colleagues, and Joseph LeDoux's idea of the synaptic self – in support of the extensive definition favored here. Finally, the article compares two divergent analyses by Katherine Ewing of the same case material, showing that the second analysis, that implicitly assumes an extensive definition of the self, provides a more satisfying explanation of the case than the earlier analysis, that is explicitly framed by a definition of the self as self-representation.
 
Article
What kind of language game do we initiate by making ‘evidence’ the focus of methodological discussion? Drawing on the example set by Wittgenstein, our first step might well be to consider the senses in which we can use the notion of evidence in anthropological writing. These senses must be different if we are asking for evidence of the existence or nature of a phenomenon (such as, for example, totemism or kinship), or evidence to test a hypothesis from the standpoint either of validation or falsification. The sense must also be different if evidence is to be understood in a juridical sense or an experimental sense. Again, evidence may be understood to be synonymous with data, or could imply a sense of what is evident, or even self-evidence - the immediacy of experience as examined by phenomenology. To determine how these different senses of evidence color our understanding of the ethnographic enterprise is the ultimate goal of this discussion.
 
Article
Since the publication of The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951, Hannah Arendt’s phrase the ‘right to have rights’ and her claim that having rights depends on belonging to and being recognized by ‘some kind of organized community’ have become key provocations on citizenship, statelessness and human rights. Arendt, however, has been criticized as perpetuating a state-centric framework that scholars and activists alike have sought to reimagine. In particular, the French political theorist Jacques Rancière argues that Arendt’s ‘right to have rights’ formula is based on an artificial distinction between the social and the political, which creates an overly narrow definition of the political subject. This article contends that in the post-9/11 era, the distinction, often attributed to Arendt, between ‘Man’ and ‘Citizen’ is increasingly blurred; yet it suggests that this blurring does not necessarily offer any emancipatory potential. It argues that while national citizenship is still meaningful, being a citizen may not be so different from being a mere human in certain contexts. The article examines three sets of cases shaping the United Kingdom’s ‘regime of nationality deprivation’ in which people are stripped of their UK citizenship for terrorism-related offences: Al-Jedda (2013), Pham (2015, 2018) and K2 (2015). First, it explores the tensions in the regime’s attempt to reconcile a fundamental inconsistency between the recognition of the human right to nationality and the sovereignty of the state to define the citizen; and second, it considers the regime’s spatial control of the denationalization process whereby denationalization orders are commonly issued and thus also contested when the targeted citizen is outside the UK’s jurisdiction.
 
Article
This essay focuses on the mutations of a place. It looks at some small disappearances involved in large urban transformations by examining how a notable New York place called Richmond Hill', an estate centered in an 18th-century Georgian-style mansion and the hill on which it stood, was embroiled over its lifetime in commodifying or monetizing practices. These practices worked their way through it over time via certain transformative (and potentially transformative) situations, acts, events and personal financial difficulties. The essay looks, in particular, at the role of Aaron Burr, a key resident of the house, in this process; it considers the objectification of his personalized social values in the place and tensions for him between holding Richmond Hill intact and extracting its wealth in the form of monetary value by releasing it or parts of it to others. However, the discussion is concerned more generally with place-change. Examining change along three complex dimensions - a place's material-sensual features/qualities, identity and location - it explores how commodifications came to decimate Richmond Hill's primary mode of existence as a place. An old question about sameness and difference arises: when, for those who have known a place, does it become a different place? In concluding, the essay considers how the problematics emerging in place-change are recast as a spatiotemporal disturbance in the consciousness of two partly fictive New Yorkers attempting to revisit the place about 1830.
 
Article
This article explores the role that images of a threatening racial other play in the exercise of power and demonstrates that the discursive framing of such threats provides insight into how responses to perceived risks become possible and politically desirable. Specifically, it examines print press coverage of the 1990 Indigenous uprising in Ecuador to examine how white-elites sought to defend the public invisibility of whiteness by framing Indigenous protestors as threatening racial others. Coverage of the 1990 uprising in Ecuador’s major newspapers encouraged a moral panic about the potential threat that ‘out of place’ Indigenous protestors presented to white, urban society. In the absence of widespread Indigenous violence during the protest, white-elite print media formulated counterfactual accounts of the event that stressed the potential of Indigenous violence to upset national stability as a means to justify the ongoing marginalization of Indigenous political actors as national threats.
 
Article
In this paper I provide an analysis of how the then-imminent event of the Ghanaian 2016 elections operated within and interrupted a born-again Christian understanding of social and political change. I argue that much can be gained from understanding Pentecostal Christianity in Ghana by paying close attention to how born-again Christians anticipate and participate in shaping the near future. My analysis of this period, just before (and after) the 2016 elections—from the perspective of born-again Christians in Ghana—contributes to an engagement with the immanent and imminent qualities of ethical life. In accounting for the ways in which the Christian “God” and the “nation” overlap or collide in born-again Pentecostal discourse and practice in Ghana, I propose that the precise configuration of how these forces come together and come apart has a force that complicates how we imagine ethics as something explicit in discourse or about the ability to step back in reflection.
 
Article
In this article, we explore what happens in qualitative terms when a social phenomenon accelerates in quantitative terms. We do so by introducing escalation as an analytical concept through which to understand sudden processes of accelerating change. Using the Danish cartoon controversy as the ethnographic prism, we show that accelerating dynamics may not only imply the quantitative growth of “things” but also that the qualitative scales underpinning and measuring change are themselves changed in the process of growth. We take escalation to refer to this “change of change” within processes of sudden accelerating growth. By introducing a new theoretical concept, we aim to contribute to discussions of social and cultural change in anthropology and elsewhere and to enable and encourage future comparison between different ethnographies of accelerating change.
 
Article
This article employs ethnography on the use of an herbal insecticide in Ifugao, the Philippines, to discuss what notions of causality are at work in vernacular understandings of causes and effects and in current anthropological theories on the processes of emergence and becoming. It is argued that Ifugao herbal insecticide use rests upon a notion of causality which is polygenic and dispositional. This means that causation is understood as located in an assemblage of elements that together enable the manifestation of a disposition to eradicate a certain type of worm from irrigated rice fields. The article argues further that contemporary anthropological theories inspired by ANT, material semiotics and the philosophy of Deleuze operate with an implicit notion of causality and that a notion of dispositional causality can be used to explicate the causal assumptions of these theories.
 
Article
This commentary discusses Julien-François Gerber and Rolf Steppacher’s proposal for an anthropological engagement with the basic principles of possession-based economies. The empirical and analytical validity of the theory of ownership is dismissed. That theory mistranslates classics of economic anthropology into economics. The modes of production approach reveals that the theory of ownership’s core claim is false – capitalism is not based on legal property but on inequality instead. Further, the theory of ownership’s analysis of an absence of legal property in socialist economies and its recent alignment with far-right anti-migrant and Islamophobic ideologies are rejected. Accordingly, Gerber and Steppacher’s theoretical and empirical assumption that possession-based economies are capitalism’s opposite is false, as is their conception of basic principles and logics, which empties economic anthropology of an analysis of power and inequality. Alternatively, a historical anthropology of modes of production is proposed that is alert to and rejects co-optation by far-right ideology.
 
Article
This article reflects on the possibilities for political action emerging out of quotidian engagements. Following controversies on the patenting of seeds in Canada and globally within the Committee for Food Security I explore what gave the impulse for political resistance in these different arenas. How did collective action emerge and how did it sustain itself? Three political concepts are important for understanding the political actions that I observed: Eigen-Sinn, empathy and strategy. These allowed me to follow and theorize political engagements. I first reflect on the potential to resist as a capacity of all human beings, because they have Eigen-Sinn: the capacity to attribute their own meanings to things, and act in their own self-interested way according to the meaning given. Self-interested action can only become political, however, when humans go beyond their strictly individual interests and empathize with others (humans and nonhumans), what Adorno described as getting into ‘live contact with the warmth of things’. Finally, I discuss how collective action can become not only possible, but also effective, by building and defending a space for strategic action.
 
Article
Analyzing the relationship between collective action and civility within the world’s largest democracy, this essay argues that, rather than being a precondition for democratic participation or a quality of individual comportment or manners, civility can be analyzed as an effect of political recognition and of the existence of a responsive structure of authority. Using ethnographic examples of recent collective assemblies held in southern India, the essay demonstrates the limits of both deliberative democracy approaches (Dryzek, Habermas, Rawls, Benhabib, Cohen, Farrelly) and agonistic pluralist models (Mouffe, Connolly, Honig, Arendt) for understanding democracy. If individual speech action is understood to run the gamut from polite and constructive participation in deliberation to antagonistic incivility, collective action is framed by both models as inherently oppositional and adversarial, rejecting or resisting authority and protesting against it, running a narrower gamut from agonistic intervention, which frames others as adversaries, to antagonistic refusals that frame others as enemies (Mouffe). There appears no space within either deliberative or agonistic frameworks for approaching collective action as non-adversarial participation in the public sphere on par with individual participatory contributions to deliberation. The ethnographic examples presented in this essay illustrate examples of collective action as efforts to “hail the state” and be included in its decision-making processes. These examples demonstrate that collective action can function as amplification of earlier communicative efforts that have gone unheard or been silenced. Illustrating the failure of both models to capture the larger processes that result in collective action, I conclude by presenting an analytic approach from the perspective of a former British colony that offers deeper understandings of collective forms of action as they relate to civility not only in India, but elsewhere as well.
 
Article
This article argues that Schmitt's “state of exception” is only one expression of the deeper sovereign phenomenon, specifically the human capacity to inaugurate new beginnings in shared space. Sovereign action thus includes anything from Schmitt's vertically-imposed state of exception, which eliminates political subjecthood, to the thrill of horizontally-arranged movements, which enable it. To make this argument, the article foregoes the idea of the bounded, internally coherent liberal subject in favor of a relational subject, who is both internally divided and inherently tied to others. The subject's instability and relationality make new beginnings possible and renders sovereign action promising, even if risky. An unexpected example of this fuller view of sovereignty appears in an undercover police team in southern Europe that investigates global human smuggling and trafficking rings. Based on extensive ethnographic research, this article shows how they often act on their own ethical judgments, reached by considering the standpoints of people tied to their investigations, rather than through obedience to law, policy, or superior command. Acting outside constitutional order, these investigators, (re)constitute themselves as particular persons through their joint actions and simultaneously constitute modest sovereign spaces, however tentatively.
 
Article
Environmental activists in Kerala, India often contest the boundaries between the ethical and the non-ethical, flouting widely-accepted norms while ethicalizing usually trivial aspects of everyday life. The resulting ambiguity presents an opportunity to explore a problem that has troubled the recent ethical turn in anthropology: how do we know ethics when we see it? Analyzing seemingly ethicalizing moves during an environmental awareness campaign, I show how ambiguous evaluations can become persistent demands to account for one’s actions, even for those who protest, transgress, mock, or otherwise resist them. This process sheds light on the limits of freedom in ethical life and, thus, contributes to debates on how to define ethics for the purposes of anthropological research.
 
Article
What is given may be evaluated in relation to what might have been given but was not. The central thematic of this essay is what we term the shadow gift relation (as distinct from the more standard anthropological gift relation among exchange partner dyads) between the gift that is given and that which remains ungiven—with the latter, both present and not present, coming to haunt and unsettle the former. The potential of the gift is key for it is intimately related to critique: we explore how the relation between the virtual ungiven and what is actually given may come to form the basis of social criticism. This essay, then, defines a kind of ‘keeping while giving’ that is related to but different from that famously elaborated by Annette Weiner, for what is kept back, in the cases we discuss in this essay, are virtual (imagined) forms of gift. Giving is a technology of the imagination because it is a process that precipitates the imagination of a relation between an actual gift and a double that is virtual but nonetheless real because it exists in the form of a manifold of potentials for how the gift could be.
 
Article
This paper offers a critique of affect theory using the analytical concept of scale that is made concrete through an ethnography of Pentecostal Christianity and an exploration of current neuroscientific thinking. Affect theory is one recent form of a Western philosophical concern about the loss of agency in modernity, what I call “agency-anxiety.” Affect theorists tend to privilege the sense of freedom gained by immediate and individual experience over the constraints of more extended experiences and collectivity. That is, affect theory often scales its analysis tightly. This paper responds with an ethnography of Pentecostal practice and exploration of work in neuroscience that describes an analytic space in which broader scales can be useful as well. Ethnography scaled beyond the instant reveals that the Pentecostal ideal of surrendering to God in a moment of abandonment often results from a “fake it until you make it” approach; in other words, from extended, effortful, willful practice. This practice leads to the formation of habits and dispositions that allow the attainment of spontaneous rupture. Likewise, neuroscience can scale out its analysis by focusing on dispositions, moods and habits, rather than simply a more immediate view. Further, “scale effects” and emergent properties in scale-to-scale relations undermine reductionism. Finally, because Pentecostals are generally right wing yet also exemplify ruptural practice, it seems that outside of a particular conjuncture, the tightly scaled eruptive moment of affect is by no means per se a productive or (politically) progressive formation. As such, making scale an explicit analytical category might help us to see agency, change, and structure more clearly.
 
Article
This article analyzes how the Japanese state and corporations promoted neoliberal restructuring and how employees responded to and reflected upon such changes. I show how neoliberal reforms have aimed to produce greater flexibility for corporations and promote a specific mode of control—“self-management”—among employees. However, rather than rationalizing and legitimizing risk and becoming self-regulating “enterprising selves,” many employees displayed a reflexive and reactive subjectivity that eschewed such neoliberal values. The reaction of many individuals to reforms in Japan can best be understood as “silent resistance” through a combination of discrete competition, turning inward, and stronger desires for stability and security. Economic restructuring thus produced a new kind of “alienation” characterized by narrowing corporate welfare and the breakdown of corporate community. At the same time, employees’ critical reflections reveal a post-Toyotist affect marked by retrenched desires for security and control under the changing national and global economy. Rather than a new, unprecedented subjectivation, the Japanese case of risk-aversive reflexive reaction reveals how existing cultural complexes produce different forms of subjectivity in response to reforms. Further, this nuances our understandings of how the kinds of subjectivities that emerge via the diverse processes of neoliberalization are always contingent upon the multiscalar historical and cultural contexts of work, responsibility, and risk.
 
Article
This article draws on ethnographic fieldwork with No TAV activists in Valsusa, in Alpine Italy, protesting against the planned construction of a new high-speed railway. Focusing on activists’ experiences of vulnerability and police violence, the article contributes to the recent ‘subjective turn’ in the anthropology of resistance and contentious social movements, and responds to calls to ‘de-pathologize’ and ‘de-exoticize’ resistance. It explores ways to reconceptualize the subjective experience of resistance through a focus on affect, vulnerability and becoming. Combining neo-Spinozist theory of affects with Judith Butler’s feminist perspective on agency and subjectivity, the article seeks to point a way beyond the limitations of established approaches informed by the work of Michel Foucault. Further, the article also shows how affects experienced during direct action are embedded in activists’ longer biographical narratives and gradually structured, through remembering and narrativization, to provide ground for a coherent subjective sense of agency. Third, the article highlights the difference a focus on affect makes compared to the more conventional sociological focus on emotion. The notion of affect helps us to move beyond a rationalist and instrumentalist approach to emotion in social movements. The article stresses the heuristic potential of a focus on affect, but also considers methodological challenges posed by such a perspective. It suggests that the methodological toolkit available to the ethnographers of contentious politics can be enhanced by drawing on the affective capacities of researchers’ own bodies in order to register the visceral intensities vital to the experience of resistance and the ongoing formation of insubordinate subjects.
 
Article
Naturalistic, normative, and ethnographic approaches to ethical life seem to describe very different worlds. Focusing on ordinary social interactions and ideologies surrounding them, this article argues the ethnographic stance allows us to look in two directions, where we can see some points of articulation among these worlds. In one, the domain of naturalistic explanations, ethical life draws on affordances offered by psychological, linguistic, and other processes usually described as operating beneath the level of people's awareness. In the other, the normative domain of reasons, principles, and arguments about them, it is the demands of ordinary social interaction that form some of the most ubiquitous inducements for people to account for themselves in ways that can become conscious, reflexive, and purposeful. When explicit reasons and justifications result they may give rise to historical objects like moral codes and ethical precepts. © The Author(s) 2014 Reprints and permissions: sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav.
 
Article
This article explores the relationship between civility and diplomacy in the transnational commercial activities of traders from Afghanistan. The commodity traders on which the article focuses – most of whom are involved in the export and wholesale of commodities made in China – form long-distance networks that criss-cross multiple parts of Asia and are rooted in multiple trading nodes across the region, including the Chinese commercial city of Yiwu, Moscow and Odessa. Much scholarship associates both diplomacy and civility with impression management and dissimulation and therefore identifies such modes of behaviour as being inimical to the fashioning of enduring ties of trust. However, analysis of ethnographic material concerning the traders’ understandings of being diplomatic, as well as the ways in which they seek to conform to contested local notions of civility, furnishes unique insights into the ways in which they build the social relationships and ties of trust on which their commercial activities depend. By exploring the interrelationship between civility and diplomacy, the article seeks to move anthropological debate beyond the question of whether civility is either a form of artifice premised on performance or a deeper ethical virtue in and of itself. It suggests, rather, ambiguity, ambivalence, contradiction and imperfection are inbuilt aspects of the ways in which respect is communicated and evaluated, and ties of trust fashioned and maintained.
 
Article
The growing engagement with sovereignty in anthropology has resulted in a range of concepts that encapsulate how various (non-state) actors execute power. In this paper, we further unpack the concept of ‘corporate sovereignty’ and outline its conceptual significance. Corporate sovereignty refers to performative claims to power undertaken by (individuals aligned to) corporate entities with profit-making objectives within a state-sanctioned space. This contrasts with claims made by other (non-state) actors who operate in a permissive space that (regularly) lacks this legally grounded relationship with the state. By unpacking this state-sanctioned permissive space and highlighting the role of the state as the arbiter, our approach to corporate sovereignty offers a new comparative analytical perspective to theorize how sovereignty is performed and opens ethnographic avenues to explore how sovereignty is negotiated and co-produced across diverse localities. To elucidate our argument, we draw from ethnographic fieldwork conducted on coal mining companies in Mozambique and private security companies in South Africa. By focusing on cases that differ, we want to show the multitude of ways in which corporate sovereignty is enacted and takes shape.
 
Article
This article explores how, and why, the capacity for civic responsibility and civility of conduct became a central discursive and practical battleground in the colonial world. Nowhere was this more pronounced than in colonial and apartheid South Africa, where the putative benefits of self-government along separate racial lines became a crucial component of apartheid. Starting from a brief conceptual history of civility and colonialism, I argue that the principle of self-government was a central pivot of apartheid. I explore how the celebrated Civics movement that eventually brought apartheid down fostered civic ties and “ethno-civility” in a formerly Indian township in Durban from the 1970s to the 1990s. This legacy of ethno-civility has, however, turned out to be a major obstacle to the forging of relationships across racial boundaries in post-apartheid society. Deploying two ethnographic vignettes from this township, I argue that the ideals of global religious community today have taken the place as a promise of universality of mediation between groups and racial communities that the Civics movement used to occupy during the apartheid era. Yet, religious identities are unable to overcome deeper formations of racial and social difference.
 
Article
Critical anthropological theory needs to be a theory of relationality. Only through a relational theory can we come to a perception of our fundamental commonality and conceptualise difference as being given significance by the unequal relations that we stand in towards each other. A relational theory needs concepts that reflect on the asymmetrical interdependence that shapes the dynamics of power relations, which give rise to institutions of ‘significant difference’. I propose Luc Boltanski’s notion of ‘situation’ as a concept that enables us to grasp the structured contingency that shapes our mutual interdependence. Situation, by making possible the micro-analysis of macro-relations, also provides the conceptual tools to think beyond that which is, towards that which is possible.
 
Article
Many contemporary arguments about agency rely on implicit psychologies or conceptions of human mental functioning even as they attempt to direct attention away from the idea of a freely acting, completely autonomous individual. This article argues that even when the concept of agency is ‘displaced’ or reinterpreted away from the liberal subject, the concept always draws on such a psychological base whether those debts are hidden or declared. Drawing on literature from feminist theory, anthropology, and sociology on women's decisions to undergo elective cosmetic surgery, the first section of the article explores ways that agency has been conceptualized with regard to beauty culture and disciplinary bodily technologies in a US context. The second section of this article takes up women's religious practice in Saba Mahmood's Politics of Piety (2005).
 
Article
Anthropologist Saba Mahmood has critiqued the Western, feminist concept of liberal selfhood that assumes individual agency naturally resists constraints on autonomy in the process of self-realization. Based on her study of the women’s mosque movement in Egypt, Mahmood suggests that pious Egyptian women readily submit to disciplinary practices that emphasize feminine modesty, humbleness, and obedience – practices that would appear oppressive to many Western feminist observers but allow the women to cultivate a proper and (for them) desirable Muslim piety. While Mahmood’s critique is welcome, she tends to discuss individual ethical cultivation as occurring within only one normative system or another. This article will instead explore the fact that at any point in time, most individuals, especially those in a complex society like Egypt, operate under multiple normative systems and must engage with several layers of authority – family, religion, community, state – some of which may make contradictory demands on the participants in those systems. In such situations acts of submission to one set of norms may entail resistance to another set, so that acts of submission and resistance become entangled with each other. Drawing on examples from fieldwork conducted in a women’s Koran study group in Turkey, the article will explore these entanglements and discuss how they further complicate theorizing about the nature of individual agency.
 
Article
This article examines the qualitative dimensions invoked and procured by smugglers, traders, and agitators in events of transporting and trading diamonds in Angola. The experience of qualities generally attributed to diamonds is exhibited and embodied in indexical and iconic relation to organized semiotic qualisigns of speed and slowness, secure and insecure bodies, mobility and immobility. In other words, ‘qualia’ orient objects and people by displaying a connection to the experience of diamonds’ qualities of visibility and hiddenness, and allow in turn for the articulation of disparate social processes implicating both the materiality of carbon-based stones and the social relations inscribed in the labor of extraction and exchange.
 
Article
Fifteen years ago, Jane Guyer (2007) argued that the near future had largely disappeared from collective imaginaries, replaced by longer-term horizons associated with evangelical Christianity and free market capitalism. While not seeking to repudiate Guyer, this article argues that recent developments have radically altered relationships to the future. It points to a previously unrecognized connection between two of the most significant challenges facing humanity today: the experience of living through a global pandemic and international efforts to limit the harmful consequences of climate change. Responses to both phenomena invoke the grammatical structure of the future perfect tense. During the pandemic, people began to imagine themselves living at a future moment in time when they have already resumed participating in those activities they have been prevented from undertaking, an example of the future perfect. The Paris Climate Agreement, which encourages states and other parties to take action in the present so that in the future they will already have saved the planet, also relies on the future perfect. In reaction to the pandemic and climate change, the near future has reemerged as a focal point of temporal attention. This article examines how the future appears in the present and the contribution of the future perfect tense to the creation of alternative futures.
 
Article
The various progressive and conservative governments that administered Buenos Aires from the 1990s onward implemented strikingly similar policies that were aimed at transforming the city and metropolitan region into a market-centered society. Their policies caused a record number of citizens to lose their jobs in the formal sector and to become scavengers almost overnight. As they crisscrossed daily the city’s neighborhoods gathering paper, plastic and other recyclable materials, these socially stigmatized, politically disenfranchised and economically pauperized scavengers practiced civility from below with many neighborhood residents from all walks of life in civil society and, occasionally, with municipal officials and members of one or another environmental NGO and waste disposal company in political society. In dialogue with Norbert Elias’s and Cheshire Calhoun’s accounts of liberal civility, and Etienne Balibar’s revisionist conception of radical civility, my study discusses them from the perspective of Buenos Aires’ waste pickers.
 
Article
This article focuses on anthropologists’ analyses of decolonization struggles in relationship to past and present movements for self-determination. We begin by highlighting the relevance of Georges Balandier's model of the “colonial situation” for the understanding of these struggles. Next, we show that, as Pierre Bourdieu, following Balandier, suggested, the analysis of these struggles cannot forego an analysis of the position of the researchers themselves in the situation. This brings to light the difficulty of constructing one's “atopic position” as a researcher in decolonization processes. We aim to show that the theoretical precepts which anthropologists adopt (and the precepts’ moral underpinnings) lead them to minimize or overlook the political aspects of decolonization processes. This involves a certain blindness to the concrete conditions—economic, social, and political—that have led to the situation in question. We explore in detail the example of “critical” analyses of the “Kanak People's School System” (École populaire kanak, EPK)—a nationalist Kanak project, aimed at decolonizing the New Caledonia school system in the mid-1980s. We also briefly look at “critical” interpretations of a recent initiative undertaken by a segment of the Kanak population involving the establishment of a written “customary law” in civil (and potentially criminal) matters, which tends to distance itself from the nationalist strategy.
 
Article
This article constructs a dialogue between Alain Badiou's philosophy of evental subjectivation and anthropology as an empirical social science. Elaborating on the few existing anthropological engagements with Badiou's theory by bringing in his more recent writing, it aims to familiarise anthropologists with some key dimensions of his approach and conceptual apparatus and to consider its use for anthropological theorisation of political struggle and process. Reflecting ethnographically on the (after)life of one happening in Bosnia and Herzegovina (the 2014 Winter Revolt) in light of another happening (the 1992–1995 war), I investigate the conditions under which happenings may or may not come to function—and be recognised—as events, as catalysts of change. Substantially departing from Badiou's normative-universalist approach, I nevertheless argue that a core dimension of his project—an effort to conceptualise subject formation processually in relation to events—can inspire interesting avenues for anthropological theorising. Particularly in addressing questions of perspective, intensity and duration, I contend that anthropologists are well-placed to trace modalities of what Badiou calls ‘fidelity' and its refusal.
 
Article
Building on recent efforts in this direction, this essay provides arguments in support of the concept of responsivity, developed by the philosopher Bernhard Waldenfels, and its importance in anthropological theorizing. Responsivity is a way of thinking about relations between self and Other, structure and agency, universality and particularity that escapes the dichotomy which usually characterizes such conceptual pairings. By defining ‘responding’ as a relationship to the Other as other, and by defining ‘the Other’ as what we respond to, Waldenfels’ concept enables anthropologists to theoretically overcome the contradiction between radical and empirical alterity. This potential is illustrated in a discussion of the responsive aspects of other approaches to empirical otherness: the sociology of the stranger, psychoanalysis and semiotics. Through comparisons that stress points of contact and compatibility, the notion of responsivity is thrown into sharper relief. At the same time, familiar anthropological approaches to alterity are re-presented in a changed light.
 
Article
Recent anglophone ontological anthropologies have an important Latin American intellectual and political history that is rarely fully acknowledged. This article outlines some of that history, arguing that debates about the politics of this ‘ontological turn’ should be read in the context of a tension between political economy and cosmological approaches that have been a feature of Latin American anthropology in some form since the early 20th century, and that are deeply implicated in histories of conquest and colonialism, including internal colonialism. This conceptual history helps to explain both the desire of some scholars to avoid a certain kind of politicisation and the argument that methodological and theoretical innovation within anthropology is political in itself. But it also means that ontological anthropology encounters some of the same challenges faced by indigenous movements confronted with similar choices.
 
Article
This article presents a critical evaluation of the work of Tim Ingold from the standpoint of social and sensory anthropology. It acknowledges the novelty of the emphasis on enskillment, movement, process, and growth in Ingold's work. However, it is critical of his abstraction of the senses, which are rendered ‘interchangeable’, and of persons, who are reduced to generic individuals. Ingold's anthropology is shown to be pre-cultural and post-social at once, with the result that it fails to address the sociality of sensation and cultural mediation of perception. Ingold's doctrine of ‘direct perception’ is exposed as particularly problematic. In place of his emphasis on ‘the life of lines’, this article foregrounds the life of the senses, and in lieu of his diminution of the social, it acknowledges the politics of perception that inform most every perceptual act. The article concludes with a series of reflections on how to go about sensualizing anthropological theory and practicing sensory ethnography (i.e. the methodology of participant sensation).
 
Article
This paper considers queer refugeeism from Trinidad and Tobago to the UK in relation to the political economy of (im)mobility in and out of the Caribbean. Gay rights have been embraced by liberal democracies as the newest form of human rights, what has been called “homonationalism.” Mirroring other double-binds of liberal inclusion, I show how queer asylum-seekers get caught betwixt and between two globally-stratified homonationalisms while confronting the realpolitik of European asylum law not only as queer refugees but also in terms of transnational social mobility otherwise unavailable to them. The British asylum system therefore materializes as a bordering operation that more often than not denies lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) asylum-seekers their rights under the sign of their humanitarian protection. I consider whether homonationalisms everywhere—as assemblages of human rights discourse—should be thought of as “post-political” projects, a concept critical to growing bodies of political theory and cultural critique. This is because humanitarianism touts “rights” as universal and moral, therefore transcending the political. However, as a result of their practical effects, I show how the institutional practices deemed post-political in the case at hand should be understood as attempts to deflect and defuse the underlying politics of socioeconomic status and mobility at stake, and that the conflicts and contradictions at the heart of queer asylum-seeking represent the return of the repressed political within legal-technical spaces of disagreement. I also scrutinize the ambivalent entanglements of “expertise” when anthropologists are solicited as country experts in legal asylum cases.
 
Article
The article takes the debates surrounding the ‘politics of autonomy’ in Latin America as its point of departure and investigates the transformations of the political notion of autonomy against the background of developments that have characterized the so-called long decade of the new ‘progressive governments’ in the region. Moving beyond the alternative between ‘conflict’ and ‘cooptation’ that has shaped academic and political debates on the topic, the authors analyze the relations between ‘social movements’ and ‘progressive governments’ from the angle of the transformations of capitalism in Latin America and of emerging new forms of activism rooted within everyday life (particularly within ‘popular economies”). The article critically discusses such notions as neoliberalism and neo-extractivism in order to build an analytical framework within which to reconstruct the history of Latin American social movements since the early 2000s and to test the productivity and the limits of the very notion of ‘social movement’ in the present political conjuncture.
 
Article
This article engages in the ongoing anthropological discussion on the concept of 'moral economy' and opts for its multileveled use. It affirms the concept's suitability for grasping class-specific sets of moral values and considerations on the economy, as well as universalized moral frameworks through which the economy is commonly addressed by both dominated and dominant classes. In dealing with such universalized moral economies, it is suggested that our analysis should critically address the symbolic construction of the economy as an essentially moral process. The value of such a focus lies in analyzing and historicizing the recurrence of epistemologies that deny the centrality of structural oppositions in capitalism and, rather, place emphasis on moral categories, such as fairness, intentionality, and obligation. This multileveled understanding and use of the concept of moral economy can help us to further comprehend the delineation of neoliberalism in European space and the moral reformulation of the political economy of capitalism-in-crisis. The article is based on ethnographic material addressing the course of action taken by Greek technocrats specialized in the policies and cohesion funds of the European Union.
 
Article
Despite social change occurring over the 18th and 19th centuries in the Malagasy highlands, the same basic structure of the Merina circumcision ritual remained invariant, although some innovations and transformations have characterized its evolution. The issue is to render intelligible this co-existence of constant and shifting religious ritual forms throughout history. This case study argues that Lévi-Strauss's 'canonic formula' can be reinterpreted as the law of permutation group organizing the whole series of Merina circumcision variants, thanks to relationality theories of ritual and to the structure mapping and multi-constraint theories of analogical reasoning. The canonic formula [Fx(a): Fy(b):: Fy(a): Fa-1(x)] formalizes a counter-intuitive proportional analogical thought and action inherent to the performance of Merina circumcision as a special agent ritual. Because this kind of analogy is based on core constraints, some of them structural and insensitive to the historical context, some of them being semantic and pragmatic and thereby depending upon cultural experiences and social situations, the permanence and variation of circumcision ritual form can be related to the hegemonic rise and decline of historical Merina polities.
 
Article
In this article I seek to elucidate the theoretical relationship between the concepts of morality and personhood. I argue that cultural models of personhood are more concretely available to the imagination as compared to philosophizing about objective moral goods, despite the fact that people commonly gravitate toward moral realism. Models of personhood provide a more practical underpinning for conceptual moral goods. I demonstrate these connections through an exegesis of a Hmong model of ancestral personhood and its relationship to moral discourse collected during my fieldwork. Future emphasis on these explicit connections between cultural models of personhood and moral discourse will help answer some of the methodological and theoretical concerns in the evolving anthropology of morality.
 
Article
The study of ghosts and spirits, and the ethnographic evidence associated with this, is a fertile area for developing methodologies. By employing theories of materiality and the anthropological study of ontologies, I argue that looking at the traces of spirits and ghosts in the material domain can reveal crucial insights into their nature, position and relationships with the living. Two ethnographic case studies from the Buddhist ethnic Lao are used to demonstrate how material traces can explain the 'ontic shifting' of certain ghosts. I will then explore how through the modernization and rationalization of Buddhist cosmology there have evolved competing ideas of the nature of ancestral spirits addressed in Buddhist rites. While in an older interpretation these spirits are accessible through objects and the exchanges between layperson, monk and spirit, 'modernist' Buddhist monks advocate that the dead cannot be reached through objects. Finally, I argue that the material traces of spirits and their different readings hint to important transformations regarding the conceptualization of ghosts and spirits through the socialist revolution and the rationalization of Buddhism.
 
Article
The environmental crises referenced by the term Anthropocene incite responses that reflect different understandings about the right way to live on Earth. This, one would expect, should generate a proliferation of disagreements and an expansion of politics. Yet, so-called post-political authors warn that, instead, the way in which the Anthropocene has been brought to the public eye implies an emptying out of politics and a disavowal of the inherently conflictive pursuit of different visions about the right way to live on Earth. To counter this, they propose that the problematic of the Anthropocene needs to be displaced onto the terrain of the “properly political.” In this paper I probe what the “properly political” might mean in the context of the Anthropocene.
 
Article
Biological anthropology often treats its species as if they were natural, zoological units. While biologists sometimes acknowledge the contested aspects of species, I argue that the taxa in our own ancestry are different from those in zoology more generally, by virtue of their roles as characters or elements in our scientific origin myth.
 
Top-cited authors
Cris Shore
  • Goldsmiths, University of London
Henrik Vigh
  • University of Copenhagen
Ghassan Hage
  • University of Melbourne
Sherry B. Ortner
  • University of California, Los Angeles
Yael Navaro
  • University of Cambridge