Anthropological Legacies and Human Futures

A Report on 14th Biennal Conference of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) Milan, 20-23 July, 2016

By Jörg Wiegratz

The 14th Biennal Conference of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) (Milan, 20-23 July 2016) was titled ‘Anthropological legacies and human futures’. The gathering took place against the background of a discipline that, like others faces a range of challenges concerning relevance and funding, amongst others. In the conference text, the organisers noted:

Anthropology has lived a time of change, innovation, and interdisciplinary dialogue, but has also struggled to define and establish its own research priorities against the tendency of other intellectual traditions to co-opt its contributions. Political agendas external to the discipline have often bent the broader significance of our findings, and other fields of knowledge have partly appropriated, partly trivialized as anecdotal information, the strengths of the anthropological approach to the study of humans: the ethnographic method. Anthropology treasures lessons learnt that enable the questioning of ‘evidence’ and the sensitive understanding of shifting realities. Its relentless contextualization of human experiences and institutional powers liberates the ability to envision and build new frameworks of civic coexistence. Its bottom-up gaze and long-term engagement with the rich diversity of ways to be human play a fundamental role in re-shaping and sharpening general concepts (i.e. gender, relativism, culture, tradition, and so on) by now widely employed, if often superficially, among media of all sorts. The interest of anthropology for the subjective navigation of broader social systems always carries with it an implicit cultural critique.

This is a good summary of what makes the discipline arguably so attractive, also for non-anthropologists (including political scientists and political economists such as this author) in search for learning, inspiration and collaborations. The conference had six broad themes: power, economy, kinship, religion, knowledge and forms of expression, and work. The selection of these themes and the focus of specific panels and papers (see below) indicate the relevance and usefulness of the conference for readers.

That said, the keynote lecture by Didier Fassin was on ‘The endurance of critique’. Again, it is useful to cite the lecture’s abstract at some length: ‘In a time when critique is considered by some to be running out of steam and is disqualified by others in the name of a triumphant positivism, anthropology may have to reclaim its various critical traditions, including that of self-critique, to apprehend a world in which weak social and political consensus too often serves to elude the tensions, contradictions and even aporia of contemporary society.’

Notably, one of the three plenaries was titled ‘Contemporary Capitalism and Unequal Society: Obscene Exchange, Complicity and Grassroots Responses’, with interventions on ‘Competition and equality or monopoly and privilege: two faces of capitalist accumulation, the case of Southern Europe’ (Susana Narotzky), ‘Life and debt in South Africa’ (Deborah James), and ‘Love, Marriage and Prostitution: the Libidinal Economy of Capitalism’ (Noam Yuran). The plenary text reads:

In discussing what constitutes contemporary capitalism Noam Yuran reviews the historical peculiarity of capitalism, often described as an economy where everything is up for sales. The full meaning of this commonplace is that things that are formally outside the market are suspected as hiding an obscene exchange. To explore this idea the paper will revisit Werner Sombart’s Luxury and Capitalism, which traces the origin of capitalism to the rise of illicit love and the luxury industry it propelled. He also examines why in contemporary cultural imagination prostitution is associated with finance. Through the analysis of ethnographies of Southern Europe, Susana Narotzky addresses major tensions within the political economy of capitalism. While mainstream neoliberal policy discourse points at enhancing competition, mostly through reducing regulation, the practices of large firms point to various privileged deals supported by political elites. The grassroots responses to this situation focus on recuperating regulatory practices, a return to an economic nationalism, or quasi-autarkic projects of an alternative community economy. This view does not preclude a general belief in the need to gain a competitive market edge. Deborah James deals with the South African context where sharp rises in indebtedness have accompanied the rapid financialization of the economy over the past two decades, debt factors in other socially important relationships and meanings in the everyday life of the family and household. Different obligations and imperatives balanced against, or converted into, one another are examined. She challenges the overly deterministic assumption that these sets of relationships, and the conversions between them, embody a monolithic framework, imposed from above by financial institutions which intrudes into people’s intimate relations and commitments. She suggests exploring the complicity of participants’ engagement with the ‘financialisation of daily life’ rather than seeing it as imposed on unwilling victims. readers might check the recent books of the presenters; At the Heart of the State: The Moral World of Institutions (Didier Fassin), Industry and Work in Contemporary Capitalism: Global Models, Local Lives? (Susana Narotzky as co-editor); Money from Nothing: Indebtedness and Aspiration in South Africa (Deborah James), What Money Wants: An Economy of Desire (Noam Yuran).

Particular papers that were based on material from African countries included for instance: ‘Agricultural modernization and emotional attachment to land in a Rwandan village’ (Anna Berglund), ‘Equal land rights but not quite: women living in informal monogamous and polygamous unions in Rwanda’ (Ilaria Buscaglia), ‘The (com)promised land? Understanding women’s access to land between development discourses and local perspectives in Burkina Faso’ (Martina Cavicchioli), ‘Forensic anthropological endeavors, missing persons and the construction of genocide in Guatemala and Somaliland’ (Markus Hoehne, Shakira Bedoya Sanchez),  ‘amaXhosa Maradona: negotiating past, present and future through soccer in a South African township’ (Tarminder Kaur), ‘Knowledge, power and land transformations in Northeast Madagascar’ (Jenni Mölkänen), ‘Property relations in peri-urban Ghana: the local face of global processes’ (Raluca Pernes), ‘Pre-Islamic and pre-Christian beliefs in Sub-Saharan Africa: impact on social and political institutions’ (Oleg Kavykin), ‘Portuguese “migrants” in Luanda: a post-colonial encounter?’ (Irène Dos Santos), ‘Postcolonial positions: conceptualizing the Portuguese migrants in Angola (Lisa Åkesson), ‘Angolan-Portuguese workplace relations in contemporary Luanda’ (Pétur Waldorff), ‘New XXI Century Portuguese immigration in Mozambique: transnationalism and postcolonial identities’ (Eugénio Pinto Santana), ‘French presence in contemporary Algeria: a postcolonial memory & practices’ (Giulia Fabbiano), Today’s missionaries: depoliticising and individualising women’s activism in post-2011 Egypt’ (Liina Mustonen), ‘Feeling vulnerable in the field: collaborative filmmaking in the Niger Delta and the contestation of ethnographic ideals’ (Julia Binter), ‘The moral economy of violence: examples from contemporary Egypt (2011-2015)’ (Perrine Lachenal), ‘Political-economic drivers of moral economies of fraud: the case of neoliberal Uganda’ (Jörg Wiegratz), ‘The resistances during the Ebola epidemics as an expression of mistrust’ (Abdoulaye Wotem Somparé), Platinum dreams (Dinah Rajak), ‘Property regimes and the qualities of resources: the labor of transparency and opacity in Angola’s mining industry’ (Filipe Calvao), ‘Making the individual in a Papua New Guinea oil economy’ (Emma Gilberthorpe), ‘Virtuous imperialism: African police cadets training in Portugal’ (Susana Durão’), ‘Policing reforms in Nigeria: views on Human Rights between theory and practice’ (Nina Müller), ‘Workshops as sites of knowledge transmission?’ (Tim Bunke), ‘Musicians’ debts in the South African recording industry’ (Tuulikki Pietilä), “It’s all about money”: urban-rural spaces and relations in Maputo, Mozambique’ (Inge Tvedten), ‘The politics of a just price: negotiating the price of a ‘tomato of one hundred’ and a ‘t-shirt of ten thousand’ in oil-boom Equatorial Guinea’ (Alba Valenciano Mañé), ‘“Yu sabi fᴐ tᴐk prays”: performing and navigating just prices in the streets of Makeni, northern Sierra Leone’ (Michael Bürge), ‘“Sometimes you need to be selfish”: kinship webs of the Kenyan middle class’ (Lena Kroeker), ‘Contemporary African migrants in the USA: cultural adaptations in megacities and towns compared’ (Veronica Usacheva).

Dr. Jörg Wiegratz is a lecturer in the Political Economy of Global Development at the University of Leeds and a member of the editorial board of ROAPE.



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