ASA15: Symbiotic anthropologies: theoretical commensalities and methodological mutualisms


What does it mean to do anthropology today? What can – or should – anthropologists do and with whom? Anthropology has always been a discipline ‘in the midst’ – balanced between scientific method and literary craft; theoretical elaboration and practical application; fieldwork outside of institutional life and involvement within the university (Geertz 2001; Holbraad 2009). We respond to that epistemic tangle in different ways. For some it provides a source of theoretical invention and methodological innovation, a ‘trading zone’ for collaboration across disciplinary boundaries, experimentation with new knowledge practices and cross-pollination of theories and roles (Comaroff 2010; Roepstorff & Frith 2012): anthropologists as advocates, political campaigners, film makers, artists, musicians and consultants; ethnographic evidence marshalled into forensic accounts, legal evidence, documentary film, advertising and marketing campaigns, government policies or as corroboration for clinical trials. For others, the ‘betwixt and between-ness’ of anthropology acts as our disciplinary anchor; its precarious liminality reinforces our ethnographic eye (da Col & Graeber 2011; Riles 2001; Strathern 2006; Willerslev 2001).

What is clear is that the conditions under which ethnographies are produced and theorised have changed. The increasing demand and need for contextualized data, holistic perspectives and socially responsible practices, has introduced anthropologists into institutional spaces once restricted to the natural sciences, policy-makers or business (Holmes & Marcus 2008). At the same time, the explosion of social networking technologies means that work in a world awash with realtime representations of social reality: ethnography is at once everywhere and nowhere (Coleman 2010).

The aim of this conference will be to explore the shifting borders and boundaries of anthropological work today. Symbiosis describes processes of differing types of beings and organisms living together, whether over short or long periods of time, in close contact, loose or harmful association. In the context of biology, symbiosis implies various kinds of co-existence between entities of different orders, encompassing relations that are mutually beneficial and those that are parasitic and even harmful to one or more parties involved. By symbiotic anthropologies we want to suggest close examination of precisely those occasions and relationships when in response to institutional pressures, or ethnographic demands, we are forced, obliged or fortunate enough to depend upon others for our institutional survival, or our theoretical and methodological innovations. Of course, that conjunctive – and at times parasitic – sensibility has a long disciplinary tradition in, for example dependence on the hospitality of others and inviting ourselves to dine at our hosts’ tables (Serres 1982; Candea and Da Col 2012). While much of anthropological work involves an effort to cultivate an ethics of co-existence – a restless intimacy and infatuation with difference continues to inflect our empirical concerns and our discourse (Wolf-Meyer and Samuel Collins 2013). Ethnographic methodologies have evolved in relation to other intellectual traditions, internalizing over the years diverse scientific, political, literary, cinematic, linguistic and artistic techniques (e.g. experimentation, film, photography, pastiche, activism). Physical, emotional and analytical proximity can be perilous – we risk losing our compass, getting too close and ‘going native’*.

We are interested in exploring, discussing and debating: what constitutes contemporary anthropological knowledge, theories and practices? What are the methodological muddles and potentials of working with those defined as disciplinary or institutional ‘others’? Given that the methods and ideas of anthropology have been both borrowed from and appropriated by ‘other’ disciplines who and what constitute anthropology’s outside?  How are these disciplinary ‘traces’ differently expressed? In a world of social networking, facebook and twitter, does ethnography still ‘work’, in the traditional sense, as a solitary researcher immersed in ‘the field’ (Collier, Lakoff & Rabinow 2006; Miller 2012)? In what ways have new fieldsites, institutions, technologies and people left their mark on anthropological theories and ethnographic practice, on the ethics of entanglement and the possibilities of detachment (Candea 2011)? In a policy climate that emphasises interdisciplinarity, public-private partnership, ‘impact’ and systematic data sharing, what are the evidentiary conventions through which anthropologists aim to enhance the intellectual integrity and social relevance of their claims -- and how might these be changed/transformed (Engelke 2009)? What further external pressures shape, form and influence anthropology in terms of the orientation and content of its teaching and research outputs (Lederman 2006)? What moral and political issues and dilemmas confront the contemporary anthropologist? What does it mean for an anthropologist to be an anti-racist, postcolonial, feminist, Marxist, environmentalist, post-humanist, human and more-than-human rights campaigner in the contemporary world (Goodale et al 2006; Graeber 2004; Hale 2006; Harper 2006; Scheper-Hughes 1995)?

Proposals were invited which address and reflect on these and related questions and issues. Our aim is to open up a forum for examining, discussing and debating the innovative and creative collaborations, methodologies and knowledges that constitute the enterprise of contemporary anthropologies.

*We deploy this term to evoke the colonial histories of difference, othering and violence central to the formation of social anthropology as a discipline. Thus this term is used to evoke the power relationships of difference and otherness that have traditionally separated the white European anthropological researcher from those researched. We use this term here in the hope of stimulating discussion and debate about the contemporary reproduction within the academy of these racialised colonial discourses of violence and difference and to open up a space to challenge them,


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