ASA16: Footprints and futures: the time of anthropology

Monday 4th July

18:00-19:10 ASA's Firth lecture, Calman - Arnold Wolfendale
Time as Technique
Laura Bear (LSE)

A rapproachement between the anthropology of history and the anthropology of capitalism has created a temporal turn. This has generated new theories of the times of capitalist modernity and vectors of inequality. Yet, so far, research has been divided into three separate streams of inquiry. Work addresses either the techne (techniques), episteme (knowledge) or phronesis (ethics) of time, following traditions in the social sciences derived from Aristotelian categories. This talk explores the potential and limits of such distinctions. It also traces contemporary dominant representations and experiences of time such as short-term market cycles; the anticipatory futures of the security state; and precarity. It follows how time-maps are assembled into technologies of imagination with associated material practices. In conclusion, it proposes a new theoretical vista on time for anthropology based on the heuristic of timescapes. Within timescapes, techniques, knowledges and ethics of time conjoin in the mediating labor in/of time carried out by individuals and collectivities. This is better captured by the myth of the Indian deity, Vishwakarma, than that of the Greek God, Prometheus. Vishwakarma, the god of craft and iron-working, brought the entirety of space, time and the world into being by sacrificing himself to himself. His sphere of action is not circumscribed to an arena apart from epistemes and phronesis. Here is an image of techne, creative making, that does not follow in the Greek tradition of Aristotelian distinctions that have shaped anthropological approaches to time.

Tuesday 5th July

14:00-15:30 Plenary 1:  Imperfect pasts, imprinted futures, Calman - Rosemary Cramp
Convenors: Andrew Russell, Hannah Brown (University of Durham)

Living under the impact of rapid environmental, technological and social change raises urgent questions for an anthropology concerned with health and wellbeing. Imprints of power and inequality, the structures of caring and governmental relations, and the legacies of biological and political pasts are becoming registered on bodies and populations in ways which challenge longstanding modes of anthropological engagement.  This theme thus reflects on the changing profile of contemporary anthropologies of health and healing, their legacies and future promises.

Reductionism is not the problem: an argument for contrasting as a research strategy
Annemarie Mol (University of Amsterdam)

In medical anthropology laboratory sciences are often criticised for being reductionist. They are said to focus on isolated bodily variables while reality deserves to be studied as a whole. To contribute to holist understandings of their field, anthropologists seek to add their insights about complex social configurations to the physical facts elucidated by the natural sciences. Here, I will suggest another approach. Drawing on decades of social studies of science, my argument is that laboratories don’t study natural processes, but rather handle reality as if there were ‘natural processes’ to be studied. They do not reduce a whole to its parts, but rather organise a version of reality into being. In response to this, anthropologists would do well to explore which practical scenarios for dealing with life and living various laboratory research projects orchestrate, how these scenarios travel and what contrasting possibilities they interfere with. To flesh out this argument I will use materials to do with eating practices – more particularly attempts to counter obesity and concerns about human need for proteins.

A discussion of the gains and losses associated with Medical Anthropology's shift of focus from Ethnomedicine to Biomedicine
William Sax (Heidelberg University)

For most of its brief history, what we now call medical anthropology was primarily concerned with the texts, rituals and practices of "non-Western" systems of healing. Medical Anthropology was, in effect, what we now call "Ethnomedicine." In recent decades, medical anthropologists have shifted their attention away from non-western systems of healing and towards biomedicine, science, and technology, while Ethnomedicine has come to be regarded in many quarters as irrelevant and old-fashioned. What unites these two strands of medical anthropology, and what divides them? What have we gained, and what have we lost, through our shift of emphasis? What spaces for critique can each style of medical anthropology generate? And above all, why should we pursue either of them?

14:00-15:30 Plenary 2: Environment and energy: anthropological knowledge in urgent times, Calman - Ken Wade
Convenors: Ben Campbell, Juan-Pablo Sarmiento-Barletti (University of Durham)

Anthropology has brought dominant forms of understanding environmental change and human ecological interactions into critical contention with lived worlds, exploring diversity in the possibilities of being and doing otherwise. As questions of sustainability and resilience rise in global policy agendas such as climate securitization, and the challenge of transition from fossil fuel to renewable energy systems, this thematic strand will examine the discipline’s opportunities for contesting the capture of the environment as an object of natural science and for contributing ethnographic ways of thinking about contemporary and anticipated challenges for living in a post-carbon energy landscape.
The relatively new field of the anthropology of energy has brought a topic that was hidden in a guise of technics out into the open. The twentieth century infrastructural lock-in of national grids and the internal combustion engine has been unlocked to reveal urgent imperatives for transition alternatives, which require attention to energo-politics, off-grid governance, and the agency of informed energy citizenships. Problems that were once the territory of physics and engineering now require holistic and relational approaches to socio-technical practice. Global policies designed for mitigating and adapting to climate change are often made in the cause of reducing risk to vulnerable communities in the global south, but the politics of renewable energy frequently come with unintended consequences for those same communities. This theme will explore the social basis for sustainable transitions in diverse environmental contexts

Aeolian Futures: Wind, Power and Anthropology in the Anthropocene
Dominic Boyer and Cymene Howe (Rice University)

In a time when fossil fuels have been exposed as among the greatest ecological threats to life on earth, renewable energy forms like solar and wind power are increasingly promoted as instruments of our collective salvation. But our fieldwork in Southern Mexico on the politics of wind power development has yielded evidence of a more complex story. The stakeholders in Mexican renewable energy are many, ranging from all levels of government, to international industry and finance, to indigenous ranchers and fisherfolk in a region that has, in only a decade, come to be home to the densest concentration of on-shore wind parks anywhere in the world. Likewise the “goodness” of renewable energy is differentially felt. Some in the Isthmus indeed believe that wind power will not only bring clean energy to Mexico but also upward mobility and economic prosperity to one of the poorest regions of the country. Others are fiercely critical of what they regard as just another effort to extract land and resources for the benefit of those outside the region. In our analysis, we argue against a singular interpretation of “wind power” and toward a surfacing of the multiple effects and ways of wind’s mattering in the Isthmus (and beyond). We call for attention to the “aeolian politics” from which ideas and projects of “wind power” emerge and we evaluate the multiplicity of “aeolian futures” that might await us. Some of these futures, we argue, may break with the trajectories of the Anthropocene. Others will not. We further argue that anthropologists need to rise above their own sectarian debates over the priority of ideational or material analysis to engage with both the human and non-human dimensions of this process of future-making.

18:00-19:30 Futures: an ASA Colloquium, Calman - Arnold Wolfendale
Plenary Speaker: Sarah Green (University of Helsinki)
Response by: Alice Bellagamba(University of Milan-Bicocca)
Chair: Elisabeth Kirtsoglou (University of Durham)

This event has been included in order to address issues of immediate and topical significance to social anthropologists. It will be led by Professor Sarah Green who will talk about the refugees who cross the Mediterranean. A response will be delivered by Dr Alice Bellagamba, who is attending the conference as the EASA ambassador. 

Traces and Trails in the Sand: accounting for Mediterranean refugees
Sarah Green (University of Helsinki)

Stories about people crossing the Mediterranean have become part of the emergence of an enormous and constantly morphing entity called ‘the refugee crisis’ over the last couple of years. Each story can be told in a variety of ways, sometimes emphasizing one part and sometimes other parts, thus diversely connecting and separating the places, peoples and practices that are involved. There have been multiple disagreements as well, about moral principles, facts and figures, or predictions about what might happen next. There are those who pronounce that ‘it’s a mess’, meaning that this question involving people crossing the Mediterranean has become a moral, political and practical minefield that they believe may be threatening the stability of the European Union, if not everything that is European. Others challenge this implication of impasse and impossibility, suggesting that it is not the first time in history that it has happened, that ‘Europe’ is more than capable of coping, and that it is not the people crossing who have created the ‘crisis’, but the panoply of authorities who manage borders and movement. The paper explores what kinds of relations and separations between peoples and places these stories make, what kinds of traces they leave for the trails ahead, and how stories told anthropologically might have something to add.

Wednesday 6th July

14:00-15:30 Plenary 3: Temporalities of the future: power, polities and economies, Calman - Rosemary Cramp
Convenors: Elisabeth Kirtsoglou, Daniel Knight (University of Durham)

This theme explores temporality in its political and economic dimensions.
Political agency is intricately related to the concept of time and the idea of the future. Power asymmetries often appear to be inscribed in temporal asynchronies giving the impression that people around the world live in different timescapes.  A critical re-examination of the power/knowledge knot in terms of temporality leads us to think that positions of power are frequently also positions of ‘chronocracy’ and entail capacities such as those of ‘knowing ahead of others’ and ‘deciding/planning’ for the future of other social and political subjects. Time is invested with power, constituting power as a never-finished business and a self-producing field of action.
Recent concerns, brought about by the global financial downturn, point to the centrality of temporalities of exchange as these have been used to distinguish one form of exchange from another, one form of sociality or morality from another. Time serves to cement social relations in reciprocal exchanges while distinctive temporalities inhabit all areas of economic activity, such as stock markets, political bureaucracy and clientelism. Varieties of debt and their social implications are currently at the forefront of debates on the constituent elements and political consequences of the concept of crisis in its capacity to structure, order and define understandings of cultural, historical and social time.

From Athens to the Anthropocene: Crisis, Affect, Epoch
Charles Stewart (UCL)

The only certainty in the midst of a crisis is that it will end. Just how and when this ending will come is, however, uncertain. Crises therefore intensify thought about the past and the present, but also about time itself. This lecture begins with a consideration of the periodizing schemes produced during the economic crisis currently besetting Greece. And it compares them with other periodizing schemes produced at times of crisis, such as Hesiod’s ‘Myth of the Five Races,’ and the idea of the Anthropocene Epoch currently proposed in the face of global warming. The human situation involves negotiating change while suspended between past and future. This lecture considers ‘epochalisation’ as a chronic form of imagination during crisis.

14:00-15:30 Plenary 4: The past and future of cultural evolutionary theory in anthropology, Calman - Ken Wade
Convenors: Jamie Tehrani, Jeremy Kendal (University of Durham)

Recent years have seen a revival of evolutionary approaches to the study of cultural diversity and change in anthropology. While its proponents see the new cultural evolutionary school as an opportunity to reconnect with the original mission of anthropology and reunite it with estranged sister disciplines such as psychology, archaeology, linguistics and zoology, many social and cultural anthropologists remain deeply uncomfortable with its aims. In large part, this is due to the historical legacy of nineteenth century anthropologists, who are widely perceived as having led the discipline on a wayward path towards ethnocentricism, racism and eugenics. There is also concern over methodology and the utility of a quantitative evolutionary framework to address socio-cultural issues.

Evolving Models of Cultural Evolution: The Case of Modern Contraception
Alex Alvergne (University of Oxford)

Cultural evolution theory developed 30 years ago, building on the success of classic evolutionary genetics in understanding patterns of diversity in the living world. The advent of cultural evolution studies uncovered the previously unsuspected significance of culture in a wide range of non-human species and contributed to an increased comprehension of the origins of human culture. Yet, key questions remain, not least as to the relevance of evolutionary theory for the understanding of contemporary human cultural diversity and change.
To some extent, paralleling the structure/agency debate, within the evolutionary social sciences there has been an enduring controversy over which level of analysis, the group or the individual, matters most. Indeed, evolutionary biologists tend to view cultural change as being predominantly driven by individual interest, as predicted by optimization models. Conversely, evolutionary anthropologists have invoked group level forces for understanding the spread of “maladaptive” traits, that is, those cultural traits that reduce individual reproductive success.
In this talk, I will illustrate this tension, contrasting the validity of existing cultural evolution models, using the example of the adoption of modern contraception in rural Ethiopia. Contraception is a particular case in point as the uptake of a fertility-reducing technology directly challenges Darwinian notions of fitness.
I will not seek to prove any one model “right”, nor do I wish to propose a convenient but inevitably superficial “integration” of existing frameworks. Rather, I aim to challenge current cultural evolution models by drawing on a wide range of data from one context, including individual reproductive histories, social network data and in-depth interviews. Building on the empirical findings, I will propose a novel theoretical model for predicting patterns of contraceptive prevalence in contemporary populations. Moving from models to data and back again, I hope to outline new ways forward for thinking about human cultural evolution.

Thursday 7th July

14:00-15:30 Closing Plenary: Experiencing fields/fields of experience, Calman - Arnold Wolfendale
Convenors: Claudia Merli, Paolo Fortis (University of Durham)

The tradition of long-term fieldwork is central to the practice and identity of social anthropology. However, the questions we now wish to answer and the constraints under which many anthropologists now carry out their research have forced us to deal with a variety of new theoretical and methodological issues. In this theme we invite panel contributions that explore the plurality of fields and field-sites available to anthropological investigation. This theme provides space for reflection on: different modalities of fieldwork, the changing nature of personal and interpersonal engagement in the field, anthropological traditions of research, ‘slow anthropology’, consultancy, ethical aspects of ethnography in war and conflict, ethnographies of the margins, the work of multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary teams, ethnography in cyber space, fieldwork and the aesthetics of sociality (human and non-human), politics and representations of alterity, ethnography as art, ethnographic experience of art, and art and ontology. This theme is also interdisciplinary in that it encompasses the interface of ethnography with other research practices such as animal observation, human-animal interactions, excavation, burials and forensics.

On the Varieties of Temporal Experience
Michael Jackson (Harvard Divinity School)

In his 1970 collection of essays, Rethinking Anthropology, the anthropologist Edmund Leach suggested “an interesting problem which is quite distinct from the purely philosophical issue as to what is the nature of Time. This is: How do we come to have such a verbal category as time at all? How does it link up with our everyday experiences? More recently, David Graeber has written in a similarly existential vein, asking “what it means that humans live in history, in a situation where the future cannot be known and the past cannot be changed and, therefore, where the unpredictable is constantly turning into the irreversible. To live this way is simply an aspect of the human condition; it is a situation that everyone has to grapple with in one way or another, including social scientists and the people whom they study.” These comments serve as my reference points for outlining a phenomenology of temporal experience.