ASA16: Footprints and futures: the time of anthropology


The overarching theme of the 2016 ASA conference focussed on contemporary knowledge making in anthropology with one eye on the footprints that we have left [narratives, tradition, scholarship, disciplinary identity, methodology and the nature of evidence] and the other on the futures glimpsed in the richness and diversity of current anthropological practice.  This journeying does not  take place in isolation and our hope is to draw critical attention to the conditions under which anthropological knowledge is made, as seen in current engagements with the imperatives of inter-disciplinarity, disciplinarity, impact, research assessment, regimes of research governance and the neo-liberal turn in the delivery of higher education.

Crucially, the theme of footprints and futures is not just inward facing reflection. The questions posed about the ways in which we make anthropological knowledge are brought into focus at a time when the footprints that are left by inequality, conflict and the mal-distribution of resources leave a deepening imprint on large swathes of humanity.  In the societies, environments and ecologies in which we work as anthropologists there are gathering and often profound concerns about sustainability, security of livelihood and access to hope for the future.  Our internal practices are not unconnected to these external conditions.  

Footprints and Futures explored this connection by celebrating Anthropology as a discipline and Anthropos as its primary subject.   The conference invited contributions that reflect upon what we do, and what we might yet do in future.  The scope is inevitably broad; it covers our engagement with one another, with non-human others, the environment, time and history.  It explores what it is to become human as well as to be human.  It is hoped that in the five themes outlined below we will not only deepen our understanding of the nature of our own discipline as currently practiced but also extend the contribution it can make during times of crisis and critical complexity.  

1. Experiencing fields/fields of experience

Theme leaders: Claudia Merli, Paolo Fortis
Thematic plenary speaker: Michael Jackson (Harvard Divinity School)

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. The theme will provide 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.

2. The past and future of cultural evolutionary theory in anthropology

Theme leaders: Jamie Tehrani , Jeremy Kendal
Thematic plenary speaker: Alex Alvergne ( University of Oxford)

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.  In this theme we invite suggestions for panels that will scrutinise new approaches to cultural evolution as well as the critique of them, with the aim of engaging anthropologists of all theoretical hues in a constructive debate about the origins and future of our discipline.

3. Temporalities of the future: power, polities and economies

Theme leaders: Elisabeth Kirtsoglou, Daniel Knight
Thematic plenary speaker: Charles Stewart (UCL)

 This theme invites panel proposals which deal with questions of time and temporality in the functioning of polities and economies.   The overall theme is divided into two related sub-themes:

Chronocracies: We invite panels to consider the suggestion that 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. We therefore encourage participants to comment on the proposition that time is invested with power, constituting power a never-finished business and a self-producing field of action. To explore this further we invite panels that address topics such as temporality, agency, politics, power and power asymmetries, progress, chronocracy, hegemony, monochrony/polychrony, collective memory, anthropology & history, uses of the past, hegemonic narratives of identity.

The temporalities of economic exchange:  Temporalities of exchange have long been central to economic anthropology, from the classic early ethnographies to recent concerns brought about by the global financial downturn. They have been used to distinguish one form of exchange from another, one form of sociality or morality from another. Thus 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.  In this theme we invite contributions which interrogate the diverse nature of these relations and the inequalities that these bring, for example, in complex long-term credit arrangements. Varieties of debt and their social implications are currently at the forefront of economic anthropology debates.  In Britain, High Streets have become packed with ‘Cash Converters’ – latter day pawn shops where an older pattern, that integrates pawning into household economies, has reappeared – and affects consumption patterns as objects are bought as much for present enjoyment as with an eye to their potential to bring in short-term loans.  We welcome panels addressing ideas of temporality in economic exchange, particularly those that link the grassroots experience of credit, such as household economies, to broader financialised economies.

4. Environment and energy: anthropological knowledge in urgent times

Thematic leaders:  Ben Campbell, Juan-Pablo Sarmiento-Barletti
Thematic plenary speakers: Dominic Boyer and Cymene Howe (Rice University)

Anthropology has brought dominant forms of understanding environmental change and human ecological interactions in 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.

5. Imperfect pasts, imprinted futures

Theme leaders:  Andrew Russell, Hannah Brown
Thematic plenary speakers: Annemarie Mol (University of Amsterdam), William Sax (Heidelberg University)

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. Those with whom we work are reconfiguring their orientations towards potential futures, and actively restructuring the present through relationships mediated by emergent technologies, increased access to biomedicine, and new modes of social organization. These intersections of contemporary predicaments and past remainders demand new responses from anthropologists.  This theme will reflect on the changing profile of contemporary anthropologies of health and healing, their legacies and future promises.