ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment


Exploring 'atmospheres': an anthropological approach?

Location Playfair Building, Fellows Library
Date and Start Time 20 June, 2014 at 09:00


Sara Asu Schroer (University of Aberdeen) email
Susanne Schmitt email
Mail All Convenors


This panel invites an engagement with the concept of 'atmospheres' and its relevance for anthropological research. Focussed on an exploration of atmospheres, we will discuss critically how affect, perception, sociality and actions are creative of and co-created by atmospheric spaces and bodies.

Long Abstract

The notion of 'atmosphere' has always been part of anthropological discourse. It often occurs in texts and conversations, as part of ethnographic descriptions and personal field notes. In these instances atmosphere seems to refer to something vague and diffuse, a phenomenon that stems from our affective engagement with the world - evocative and difficult to grasp in terms of rational explanation. Yet few attempts have been made so far to explore the value of the concept of atmosphere for anthropological inquiry.

This panel will explore how the concept of atmospheres can inform and be made productive within anthropological and ethnographic research. We are interested in the questions of how atmospheres might be addressed and understood and whether their hazy and vague constitution might actually be inviting to further complicate the boundaries between the material and immaterial, presence and absence, individual and collective as well as body and place. Atmospheres seem to have an affinity to the in-between, the relational and situatedness. Like clouds in the sky they are ever forming and reforming, appearing and disappearing, never finished or at rest. Atmospheres can be sensed by a singular subject yet have collective affective qualities that evade the singular, can be created (e.g. for political, commercial, ritual purposes) but are also co-creating the ways through which we sense and perceive in the world.

We would like to invite papers from a variety of anthropological fields to explore the affective and performative character of atmospheres through ethnographic, theoretical or methodological reflections.

Discussant: Tim Ingold

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Thinking through atmospheres

Author: Sara Asu Schroer (University of Aberdeen)  email


Inspired through fieldwork with birds of prey and falconers this paper seeks to bring together and discuss approaches to atmospheres and explores the potential of the concept for anthropological inquiry.

Long Abstract

Anthropological inquiry is earthbound. We pay attention to the myriad ways in which people engage with the world through their bodies and senses, how they relate to each other, landscapes and materials. Our fieldwork practice and theory arises from the 'ground', it is 'situated' and 'embodied'. Often the sky above our heads and, the air through which we move when we walk the ground becomes the space of imagination, ideas and the ephemeral. What would happen, however, if we also think of anthropological research as aerial? If we started to pay attention to the atmospheric, which does not merely surround but infuses us? Inspired through fieldwork with birds of prey and falconers this paper seeks to bring together approaches to atmospheres and explores the potential of the concept for anthropological inquiry. How might a focus on an anthropology of atmospheres enrich our research praxis and provide alternative ways of research concerned with the vague constitution of atmospheres at once palpable and uncontained, abstract and material? Problematizing the division in the treatment of atmospheres into meteorological on the one hand and aesthetic/affective realms on the other, this paper proposes to bring these two together in order to develop an understanding for how people live in a moving atmospheric world.

Appropriating aquarium atmospheres: immersive design strategies in translation

Author: Susanne Schmitt  email


Public aquariums draw on design strategies that create specific and globally dispersed atmospheres of immersion. The paper explores the continuation and disruption of these pre-existing frameworks through the media practices of aquarium visitors.

Long Abstract

Aquariums are central sites of education about aquatic habitats and global biodiversity and a rapidly growing multi-billion dollar business. Their success is in large part a result of sensory and affective politics and of design techniques that need to cater to animal needs and leave visitors feeling immersed in multi-sensory representations of local habitats and ecological zones. Through the evocation of an immediate and intimate presence of various (sub) aquatic locales, visitors are attuned to local ecosystems through a sensory meshwork of water in all speeds and qualities, fresh and salty, plants, soundscapes, materials, changing temperatures, carefully designed lighting, moisture, music, children's excited voices and multiply layered narrations of the sensational behind the glass.

In this paper, I turn to aquarium vistiors' appropriation of these atmospheres as they are articualted in their media practices: amateur filming and photography that is available online. By doing so, I explore how visitors appropriate, support and resist the atmospheric narratives of these places. Special attention will be paid to the use of sound and music as a way of rescripting and re-representing the experience of a visit to an accustically staged touristic encounter..

Affective and aesthetic atmospheres as ideological play-spheres: the making of the heroic Indian entrepreneur-philanthropists in design studios

Author: Tereza Kuldova (University of Oslo)  email


Grounded in ethnographic fieldwork in urban north India among fashion designers and their business elite clientele, the paper investigates both the practical and theoretical role of atmospheres at the intersection of ideology, illusion, play, commerce and ethics.

Long Abstract

Designer studios of India's leading fashion designers are described by their elite clients as out of this world. Intoxicating, seductive and enchanting, these lavishly designed studios become theatrical stage sets for highly ritualized interactions between the guru-like figure of a designer and his/her client/disciple. Luxury spaces appear as perfect cases of both aesthetic pleasure and manipulation through atmospheres. The paper introduces several ideotypical cases of interaction within these atmospheres, showing the importance of the atmospheric realm, to which I ascribe, together with Gernot Böhme, the level of Wirklichkeit (as opposed to Realität), and pushing our thinking through atmospheres further. In particular, the paper focuses on the affective enactments of the popular ideology of 'ethical and socially responsible business' and of designers' desire to position themselves as patriotic entrepreneur-philanthropists, who sell not only spectacular garments, but also the feeling of doing and being 'good', thus in the end effectively designing 'interpassive virtue'. By utilizing the ambiguous figure of the craftsman, both celebrated as the source par excellence of Indianness and despised as social malaise, the designers theatrically manufacture themselves within the affectively charged space of the studio (and other staged events), as the new Indian heroic figures, following the currently popular ideological line of thought in which business is positioned as the only thinkable solution to social problems. The paper builds on John Huizinga's theory of play, Slavoj Žižek's and Robert Pfaller's theory of interpassivity, while further developing my own anthropological theory of atmospheres, proposed in my doctoral thesis.

Atmospheres of uncertainty: work environments, ways of knowing, and being safe

Author: Jennie Morgan (University of York)  email


This paper explores workplace 'atmospheres of uncertainty' and the skilled ways that workers perform safety in these environments by bringing together organizational and regulated ways of knowing with the personal, embodied, and tacit.

Long Abstract

This paper recounts ethnographic exploration into 'atmospheres of uncertainty' in the context of occupational safety and health (OSH) research. The field of OSH (dominated by ergonomic and psychological approaches) has paid little attention to the entanglement of safety and the atmospheric qualities of specific workplaces. This omission reflects a conceptual commitment to OSH as abstracted and regulated 'knowledge' rather than situated and practiced 'ways of knowing'. Informed by anthropological scholarship on safety, phenomenological approaches, and a call for 'atmospheric inquiry' into 'the lived experiences' of 'practice risks' (Ferguson 2010), the paper responds by investigating how, through their everyday activities, workers encounter and navigate atmospheres of uncertainty; or the ongoingly changing configurations of bodies, spaces, tools, and emotions through which workplace environments emerge. Using ethnographic examples from fieldwork undertaken with community healthcare, logistics, and construction workers, analysis reveals the skilled ways that workers bring together (and blur the boundaries between) regulated and organizational OSH with personal, embodied, and tacit ways of knowing. Safety is thus shown to be perceived and performed in relation to material, sensory, and affective contingencies. By reflecting on the author's experience of moving with workers through building sites and other peoples' homes, the paper simultaneously offers methodological consideration for further accessing and understanding safety as constituted through a complex entanglement of everyday practices, ways of knowing, and workplace atmospheres.

"A sea of movements": weather and atmosphere in "Leviathan" and the "Artificial Nature Project"

Author: Gerko Egert (Freie Universität Berlin)  email


The paper explores the concept of atmosphere not as a background feeling or as secondary to a given (human) action but as a specific setting of movements. By looking at two visual ethnographic projects the talk describes their very specific ways of unfolding as atmospheric events.

Long Abstract

Atmosphere is often used to describe a specific "background feeling" of an event or situation usually consisting of one or several human actors. In this paper I want to propose a concept of atmosphere that is not secondary to a given situation. Atmosphere is not "of something" but is the very specific unfolding of an event. Instead of enclosing given objects, atmosphere creates a scenario of differential processes.

By looking at two artistic research projects I want to discuss atmosphere especially in terms of weather and movement. Weather is nothing added to or performed by given actors (like the wind, the sun or the sea), but the very atmospheric event itself composed of manifold movements without foregrounding any single (human) action.

In her Artificial Nature Project, choreographer Mette Ingvartsen explores different weather scenarios and their specific movements. By radically decentering the human dancers, Ingvartsen choreographs "weather worlds" (Ingold) and produces catastrophic scenarios made of manifold movements. The ethnographic film Leviathan by Lucian Castaing-Taylor and Verena Pavarell (2012) enfolds the world of and around a fishing ship in front of the coast of California. Like in Ingvartsen's work Leviathan radically decenters the human perspective and creates an atmosphere build by the movements of the sea, the ship, the fish, the birds and others.

Atmosphere cannot be observed from a distanced and neutral position but becomes a mode of research itself. How can these artistic research projects help to develop a notion of atmosphere in ethnographic and anthropological research that is not based on representation but on its manifold movements?

Atmospheric lighting

Author: Mikkel Bille  email


This paper explores the way lighting technologies are used to stage community, personal identities and well-being in a residential area of central Copenhagen, Denmark. It draws on Gernot Böhme's theories of atmosphere to show how the 'ecstasy' of things helps shape human-object relations.

Long Abstract

This paper explores the use of light to stage atmospheres in a residential area of Copenhagen, Denmark. Both natural and electrical lights enable visibility but they also impart a certain sense of place that influences the way people behave and feel. The paper investigates how light is about more than individual perception and plays a crucial role in orchestrating a sense of atmosphere. But if atmospheres are 'subjective facts' as philosopher Gernot Böhme calls them, how can they be shared? The paper shows how staging atmospheres relies on cultural premises and notions of intimacy, informality and relaxation, encompassed in the Danish term hygge, or cosiness. Light frames such atmospheres through creating a sense of secureness by allowing for visual oscillations between separation and connection of people and things. In this way, investigating the use of light in shaping atmosphere offers a lens to explore how people, emotions and things, shape homey atmospheres.

Atmosphere in wet-lands

Author: Paolo Gruppuso (University of Aberdeen)  email


Aggregates of different substances, evanescent landscapes, not surfaces neither mediums, wet-lands seem interfaces between the Earth and the sky: àthmos(ἄθμος-vapour)in the sphàira(σφαίρα-sphere).This paper will explore atmosphere in wetlands through ethnographic,scientific and artistic materials.

Long Abstract

Amongst the larger marshlands in Europe, the Pontine Marshes (Italy) were reclaimed during the 1930's by the fascist regime. Today the wetlands in Agro Pontino represent the last fragments of the old marshes. In these wetlands you can still feel a particular 'atmosphere' which is related to their particular ecological features as well as to their history.

Celebrated by poets and artists, as well as by scientists and explorers, the 'atmosphere' has been understood like the quintessence of the Pontine Marshes: exotic and nostalgic from an artistic point of view; malarial and disordered from the scientific perspective. Alongside artists and scientists who visited the marshes, there were local people who used to live there. Far from being exotic or disordered, for the inhabitants the marshes' athmosphere was familiar and protective. This seems to be quite a common pattern in marshlands almost everywhere: different atmospheres contribute to constitute a particular idea of wet-land as home and provisional refuge, hospitable and repulsive, vital and deadly.

This paper will discuss ethnographic materials, as well as paintings, poems and scientific reports with the aim to explore the presence of atmospheres in wet-lands, overcrossing the boundaries between Science and Aesthetics, Malariology and Poetry, Climatology and Painting.

I will present an idea of atmosphere as a changeable concretion of air and soil, fire and water, past and present. Furthermore I will argue that atmosphere emerges as a relational process between humans and non-humans, both as an act of perception as well as a proper artefact in becoming.

Weathered bodies: weather and atmosphere as health and disease in contemporary Zulu ZIonism

Author: Rune Flikke (University of Oslo)  email


I will use ethnographic material from contemporary Zulu Zionist healing rituals to argue that concepts of weather and atmosphere are internalized and surface as pathological processes related to illness and health.

Long Abstract

In this paper I will suggest that weather and atmospheric phenomena are far more than a favoured topic of small talk among urban Zulu Zionists in contemporary South Africa. Based on ethnographic material from healing rituals and one particular illness narrative describing disease and the subsequent healing process, I will argue that wind, rain, thunder, heat, and cold are internalized as aspects of both the healthy and diseased body. I will show that these embodied experiences of weather and atmosphere are intimately related to cultural specific discourses on the body and the environment as permeable entities. However, drawing on comparative ethnographic material and Ingold's approach to earth and sky (2011), I will suggest that the body and external landscapes should be conceived as constituted through a continuous analytical line in ways that enables us to appreciate that the same winds that blow across and shape the external landscapes, can continue to blow across and shape the internal landscapes of individual bodies. In the process I will argue that it is not enough to analyse the atmosphere as a cultural specific metaphor for disease and healing, but rather that we must follow Ingold's lead and take the atmospheric conditions we live under seriously as ontological realities of a different kind than those encountered in most contemporary studies.

Atmospheres of agreement and contention in football

Author: John McManus (University of Oxford)  email


The paper explores the role of contention and agreement in atmosphere generation by looking at the diverse spaces in which transnational football fans come together to consume football.

Long Abstract

This paper explores contention and agreement in atmosphere generation surrounding one of the most mass-consumed of cultural practices - football. It focuses specifically on transnational fans for the Turkish team Besiktas. Based on ethnographic fieldwork across Europe, the paper investigates how an "atmosphere" of Besiktaslık (Besiktas-ness) is generated in the varied spaces where people coalesce to watch and talk about Besiktas.

The subject matter echoes the panel's emphasis on boundary complication; diaspora football fans are themselves "in-between", following a team from a country in which they do not reside, and the consumption of professional football in the twenty-first century inherently transnational. The same person can (and does) meet other Besiktas fans in a football stadium in Madrid, a male-only Turkish coffeehouse in Cologne, a gentrified bar in trendy East London and an online forum. Atmospheres of "unity" and "belonging" are generated one minute - through merchandise, media consumption, bodily coordination, swearing or chanting - only to be instantly ruptured, via a fistfight in the stands or an inappropriate comment or picture on Facebook.

The paper shows ethnographically how these atmospheres emerge out of practices aimed at balancing contention and agreement across variegated spaces and places. It underlines the growing importance of leisure practices and media consumption as sources of affective attachment ("atmosphere generators"?). And it explores how the perceived apotheosis of bounded identity - a football team from a particular city and country, demarcated through colours and uniforms - is continually forced up against the diversity of cosmopolitan practices that accompany so transnational a constituency.

Atmospheres and affective differences: an approach from cultural musicology

Author: Friedlind Riedel (Georg-August-University Göttingen)  email


Thinking about atmospheres in and through music enables me to ontologically conceptualise them as movement. Hence atmospheres cannot be grasped as constellations of things (Böhme 2013) but are rather an accumulation of movements that materialise in and as situations and produce affective thresholds.

Long Abstract

In my paper I focus on two aspects of atmospheres and their potential implications for anthropology. First I will argue that as emergent phenomena atmospheres are productive of socio-cultural territorialisations and communitisation. I shall refute the idea that atmospheres are vague and ephemeral as repeatedly asserted, and suggest that in repetition and as territorialising movements they can become perennial, productive of persistent affective thresholds we term cultural differences. Here music is a key agent of such communitisation as repetition is one of its basic movements.

Secondly, atmospheres are wholes that are more than the sum of their parts just as music is more than the combination of frequencies and beats. The focus on atmospheres thus implies a turn away from singularities (Schmitz 1998, 2005), such as artefacts, sounds or practices, their constellations and putative meanings and a focus instead on the situational whole. In contrast to the notion of "a culture" or "an ethnic group" in reference to which singularities had been contextualised these wholes are not ideal nor merely discursive but are affective and real yet encompassing and, as I will show, non-anthropocentric.

Drawing on fieldwork in Bulangshan in southern Yunnan (2008 - 2010) this paper seeks to explore the opportunities the concept of atmosphere may provide to disregard the questionable notion of "ethnicity" as a key category for difference. As movements, atmospheres may rather account both for cultural flows and affective, sometimes consistent, differences.

Befriending ambiguity: anthropology, architecture and the creation of atmospheres

Author: Rachel Harkness (University of Aberdeen)  email


An anthropological exploration of the atmospheric in architecture and design highlights the centrality of ambiguity to creative endeavour. By 'befriending ambiguity' (Sennett 2008) makers can potentially generate conditions for environmental and human flourishing.

Long Abstract

Exploring the value of the concept of atmosphere for anthropological enquiry, this paper considers the atmospheric from the angle of art, architecture and design. Drawing from both anthropological and art/architectural works - including ethnographic insights from eco-homes in New Mexico and travels in Venice - the argument weaves around the centrality of ambiguity to that which is atmospheric. This ambiguity is what might also be called the richly indeterminate, in-between character of the atmospheric, which creates conditions of possibility. Following Richard Sennett's contention that the success of works of craft relies upon the maker being able to 'befriend ambiguity' (2008), it is suggested that this is one way in which architectural makers and thinkers can generate or 'establish the conditions for' human and environmental flourishing (Böhme, 2013). The paper closes by exploring what the consequences of befriending ambiguity might be for anthropological practice: how might the ways that we work and the works that we make be shaped differently with such a valuing of the open, evocative and non-deterministic?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.