EASA2014: Collaboration, Intimacy & Revolution


Anthropological utopias: debating personal, political and idealist expectations in the intersection of theory and ethnographic practice

Location T-416
Date and Start Time 01 August, 2014 at 09:00


Maïté Maskens (Université Libre de Bruxelles) email
Ruy Blanes (CSIC) email
Ramon Sarró (University of Oxford) email
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

In this panel we propose to debate to what extent is and has anthropology been a utopian project, one where personal and political expectations become driving forces in its empirical, epistemological and heuristic configurations.

Long Abstract

Since its inception, anthropology has configured the "ideal savage", the exploration of otherness was tied with strong idealist expectations (hopes, promises or fantasies) of finding a perfect society, a concrete realization of utopia. Nowadays, the study of utopia has been recently described as an "ethnography of nowhere" (Shukaitis 2010), as indeed there seems to be no specific utopian place the we can approach. However, empirically speaking, we can also agree that utopia can be detected both in political and economic associations, as well as in ideologies, expectations and idealisms that affect and determine our being in the world. From this perspective, anthropology's longstanding concern with the exotic, the marginal/minoritary and the oppressed can be understood in terms of conveying, both at an individual and collective level, particular quixotic idealisms. Likewise, the critical and interventionist stances that have punctuated the discipline throughout its history can be seen as expressions of political unrest and moving beyond mere observation into action, collaboration and (ex-)change. From this perspective, "utopia" can be located in both the anthropologist's ideals and those of his interlocutors, as an emergence of the mutuality that is inherent to ethnography.

In this panel we invite our colleagues to discuss experiences and histories of 'collaboration, intimacy and revolution' in the framework of anthropological reflection on utopia as a concept or reality. We point to several key terms - ideals, expectations, wills, interventions - and question the consequences of 'mutualizing utopias' that may originate both from the anthropologists' personal positioning and his or her interlocutors' ideologies practices.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Utopia and time: rethinking temporality through utopian thought and practice

Author: Ruy Blanes (CSIC)  email

Short Abstract

In this paper I propose to debate the temporal dimensions of utopian thinking and practice, and question its ethnographic interest.

Long Abstract

In this paper, invoking my ongoing research on prophetic and messianic movements in Angola, I propose to explore the temporal dimensions of utopian thinking by linking the concept of utopia to specific expressions of social and political activity.

Revisiting classical theories that frame utopia as a 'future perfect', I will argue that, as a value, utopia is not so much an idealized future - a 'modern utopia', as H.G. Wells had imagined - but a temporalizing operation that offers more complex explications for the present and the past. I will work on top of the Aristotelian metaphysical notions of 'energeia' and 'dynamis', that is, the correlation of potentiality and actuality, to suggest that utopia, more than an abstract, non existent ideal, can be object of specific temporalizations and localizations that can be object of ethnographic study.

Was Fourier's "joy in work" so utopic? Researching work and pleasure in the 21st century

Author: Marie-Pierre Gibert (Université Lumière Lyon 2-EVS)  email

Short Abstract

While discourses today underline negative aspects of work, ethnography of work settings permits to nuance this view. This paper tries to go beyond the opposition work VS pleasure by focusing on the articulation constraints/satisfactions in work. Fourier’s utopian perspective on work might help us.

Long Abstract

In the 1820s, the philosopher C. Fourier proposed a social model based on the conception that work can be a source of pleasure. He suggested a new way of communal life in which his notion of "joy in work" could be experienced, but this remained an utopian model as such. In the 2000s, while many discourses are mainly underlining the aspects of "suffering" in the conception of work or labour, a close ethnography of work/labour settings permits us to nuance this negative view. How can Fourier's utopian perspective on work help us rethink today's situation?

In this paper, I wish to go beyond the common opposition made between work and pleasure by focusing on the articulation between constraints and "satisfaction" (Applebaum 1984) and "meaningfulness" (Spittler 2008:14) of work. I will first examine professions for which the notion of work is perceived as vastly overlapping the notion of pleasure (artists, and in a reflexive counterpoint, academics), although constraints of several kinds are very present. In contrast, activities rarely perceived as providing some pleasure - whereas there is little doubt that there is some meaningfulness or satisfaction in such activities - will be explored. Thus, I argue that whilst the combination of work and pleasure is often seen and/or perceived as mainly existing for some activities and not for other, it might be more productive to look at pleasure as one of the motors for work in every experience, though in different manners which are calling for in depth investigation.

A utopian configuration of culture: indigenous Otomí idealism in Mexico and its exotic expectations

Author: Sergio Gonzalez Varela (Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí)  email

Short Abstract

In this paper I discuss the idealism found among Otomí indigenous intellectuals in Mexico concerning their cultural traditions. It focuses on the concept of cultural utopia as a means to create a deliberate and exotic expectation of the other.

Long Abstract

This presentation is about the cultural utopia developed by indigenous Otomí intellectuals of central México. It is concerned with the creation of a particular idealism about authenticity, ancestry and cultural heritage. It centers on the data provided by a key "informant", "Don Pancho" whose main role in the last twenty years has been to offer ethnographic information to different anthropological and historical investigations about Otomí culture. In this paper I discuss the extent of Don Pancho's argument concerning the ideal value of his culture, and his deliberate attempt to conform to an ideal expectation of the other and the sublimation of the anthropological encounter. It also explores his multiple interventions in art and ritual innovation as a way to perpetuate the exotic perception of Otomí culture by anthropologists. In essence, the paper reflects on the tension between the romantic view of the other and the expectations that the other (Don Pancho) has about academic research collaboration.

African mediums in the Netherlands: negotiating heterotopias

Author: Amber Gemmeke (University of Bayreuth)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores how, in the Netherlands, African mediums and their clients create and negotiate an heterotopic space. Taking the intimate setting of ‘spiritual’ practices as a starting point, it investigates how daily struggles are both transcended and mirrored on a supernatural level.

Long Abstract

In the Netherlands, most African spiritual mediums and their clients live in the new low-cost outskirts of urban centers or in the older, rundown neighborhoods of inner cities. Here, both mediums and their clients struggle on a daily basis with issues such as illegality, the Dutch administrative system, substance abuse, drug dealing, family tensions, and financial worries. Within this turmoil, in the intimate setting of a consultation, African mediums impress an utopia upon their clients: a stress-free life with the aid of incantations and sacrifices. However, just as 'religious' and 'secular' are interrelated in concepts and practices, utopia and dystopia cannot be separated. On the one hand, the power and popularity of a medium depends on his ability to create an utopic vision of life. On the other hand, clients are well aware of the precarious situation of the mediums themselves and fear them being charlatans at best and using their powers in malicious ways at worse. This paper focuses on the intimate one-on-one setting between African spiritual mediums and their clients in the Netherlands. It addresses specifically how, in this setting, an heterotopia is created and negotiated: a liminal space, in which daily struggles are both transcended and mirrored on a supernatural level. The paper is based upon fieldwork in Senegal in 2004-2006 and in the Netherlands in 2011-2013.

On the teleology of accession: the rise and fall of liberal-humanitarian utopia in Croatian accession to the European Union

Author: Orlanda Obad (Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the role of "liberal-humanitarian utopia" in the process of Croatian accession to the European Union. It exhibits how critical anthropology of European integration may complicate but also deepen the discussion of this and related concepts in Central and Eastern Europe.

Long Abstract

Following the classical work of Karl Mannheim, Attila Melegh (2006) claims that "liberal-humanitarian utopia" may be the key to understanding the discourse on Central and Eastern Europe inherent in political processes such is enlargement of the European Union. This utopian and, at the same time, teleological aspect of accession appears most clearly in the vaguest and least concrete accession criteria, such as the rule of law, the existence of functioning market economy or the respect of human rights. Such criteria supposedly permit the accession to become a "timeless process" of adjustment and improvement toward an idea, and not a tangible model, therefore contributing to the formation and maintenance of the continental and global "civilizational slopes".

This paper will present the disruptions and punctures that the approach of critical anthropology of European integration (cf. Shore 2000) may bring to this and similar discussions of discourses on Central and Eastern Europe. It will trace the rise and fall of ideas pertaining to liberal-humanitarian utopia in Croatian accession to the EU, by also focusing on their everyday derivatives and deviations, as well as on the purposes and ends they serve in diverse social relations. The analysis will be based upon the author's long-term research of social perception of EU in Croatia, and particularly on two sets of interviews with Croatian negotiators with the EU conducted in the midst of the negotiating process (2007/2008) and repeated at its end (2013/2014).

Community-supported agriculture in Croatia: communities of alternative economic practice

Author: Olga Orlic (Institute for Anthropological Research)  email

Short Abstract

Community-supported agriculture recently started to spread in Croatia. The emerging economic practice represents a rather utopian alternative to the neoliberal mode of production and consumption, that was so enthusiastically welcomed in the post-socialist years.

Long Abstract

Community-supported agriculture (CSA) exists when a group of buyers supports organic or ecological farmer(s) by buying their products directly and, most often, exclusively from them, thus avoiding intermediaries and fostering inter-group solidarity. It is not a novel concept in the world, but Grupe solidarne razmjene ((GSRs) meaning Groups of solidar exchange as CSA is named in Croatia) have been existing in Croatia for several years

only. Legal framework, high taxing and corruption in all pores of the society compel the group to act in the so called “grey economy” zone. The subsidies economy in Croatia (taking its toll in agriculture as well, where the majority of the subsidies go to “big players”) creates numerous obstacles for CSA/GSRs in Croatia. The actors’ motivation for joining GSRs varies from alter-globalization activism (people opting for food sovereignty, opposing the neoliberal mode of production and consumption that was so idealized in the socialist times) and environmental activism, to simple wish to obtain really healthy food for a fair price. Despite different types of actors’ motivation, research carried out among members of several GSRs in NW Croatia showed that this grassroots movement has been perceived by the majority of its members as the one having the real transformative power and power to create better society.

Tourism expectations and anthropological analogies: a view from touristic intimacies in Cuba

Author: Valerio Simoni (The Graduate Institute, Geneva)  email

Short Abstract

Drawing on ethnography of intimate encounters in touristic Cuba, the presentation reflects on relations between tourism and anthropology in terms of sensitivities, expectations, and involvement in the life-worlds of the visited ‘Others’, assessing epistemological, moral and political implications.

Long Abstract

Drawing on ethnography of intimate relations in touristic Cuba, the presentation uncovers some of the convergences that exist between tourism and anthropology in terms of their sensitivities, expectations, and entanglements in the life-worlds of the 'Others' they visit, study, and engage with. These convergences, and the responses they elicit from the institutional agents of tourism in Cuba and the Cuban men and women involved in intimate encounters with tourists, point towards three idealized scenarios, which alternatively portray Cuba and Cubans as virtuous victims spoiled by the neo-colonial forces in tourism and their capitalist drive towards commoditization and exploitation, as cunning subversive tricksters resisting and taking advantage of these same forces, or as mimetic agents that embrace tourism and tourists in a claim for equal membership in a better world. Rather that assessing the degree of accuracy of each of these scenarios or suggesting the primacy of one over the other, the material presented shows that it is more fruitful to think through their co-presences and competing rationales, focusing on the conditions of their emergence, and teasing out their epistemological, moral and political implications. This, in turn, foregrounds how the idealist expectations that inform our findings and interpretative horizons reverberate with those of the people we study, fostering, sometimes inadvertently, certain alliances and collaborations while hampering others. At a more general level, the arguments developed in the presentation aim to contribute to a wider reflection on the troubled relationships between anthropological utopias and other utopic endeavors, and their possible consequences.

'Imagine a world without tobacco': utopian visions and collaborative research in public health

Author: Andrew Russell (Durham University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper looks at ‘end game scenarios’ in tobacco control and asks what if anything social anthropological approaches to utopianism have to offer the collaborative fulfillment of smoke-free goals.

Long Abstract

The utopian invitation to 'imagine a world without tobacco' is one increasingly rehearsed in contemporary tobacco control, where 'end game scenarios' are now regularly discussed and strategies for their achievement devised and implemented. This paper reviews some of the different end game scenarios that are posited, and asks what if anything social anthropological approaches to utopianism have to offer collaborative work in this field. In particular, it will reflect on research conducted in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the North East of England. In the former case, government policy is for a smoke-free future in eleven years' time, supported by 'research for a tobacco-free Aotearoa' led by ASPIRE 2025. In the latter case 'Fresh', the UK's first tobacco control office runs a strapline 'making smoking history for our children'. Drawing on Ernst Bloch's 'ontology of not-yet-being' and Miyazaki (2004)'s 'performative inheritance of hope', the paper asks how the mutuality that is inherent to ethnography might handle utopian visions that opponents construct as dystopian.

The imagined anthropologist: interviewees' expectations and data gathering in the field

Author: Emilie Roy (Al Akhawayn University)  email

Short Abstract

Interviewees are constantly constructing an image of the anthropologist which affects the process of data gathering during ethnographic fieldwork. In Mali's Islamic schools, a Canadian anthropologist needs to account for specific expectations and imagined persona imposed on her by interviewees.

Long Abstract

This paper seeks to uncover the ways in which anthropologists must work with and take advantage of the expectations of interviewees in the process of data collection. Based on two years of field research in Islamic schools in Mali, I will present the ways in which respondents have imagined, idealized, or demonized me, the individual and the anthropologist, and how it has affected data gathering in the field.

To my interviewees, "facts" about my person were salient and led to assumptions about "who" I am. These assumptions are as follows: I am white, a "toubabou" in Malian parlance. I am a woman, more precisely a girl with all that is implied by the word: young, single, and childless. I am Christian, even though I am not, in fact a believer. Atheism or agnosticism are not, however, considered valid categories. I am Canadian, and I was told it was "a good thing." Those I interviewed were generally black male Malian Muslim scholars in their 50's who have studied Islam in a university of the Arab world. When interviewing these men, stereotypes about my identity crystallized. Relationships were affected by the respondents' perceptions of me.

Assumptions about the anthropologist in the field made by interviewees are inevitable and they have to be acknowledged. I argue, however that these expectations, even the outright negative ones where interviewees doubt the moral qualities, the competency and the efficiency of the researcher, can be used to further research by allowing for naive questions and "hand-holding" through research.

Mutualizing of utopias? On filmmaking and fieldwork with Others

Author: Karen Waltorp (Aarhus University)  email

Short Abstract

I draw on fieldwork, filming, and a collaborative exhibition in a multi-ethnic, social housing area in Copenhagen. I discuss this collaborative approach, which also engages audiences as an integral part of knowledge making, as both opening up to – and as driven by - utopian ideals.

Long Abstract

Fieldwork and knowledge creation can be approached as collaboration, involving a dialectic feedback process with interlocutors as well as various audiences as an integral part of knowledge making. My interlocutors are young Muslim women of ethnic minority origin, the ‘Other’ in Danish society. In working creatively with documenting their everyday life, hopes, fears, longing and belonging, new spaces of potentiality emerge as a form of ‘moral laboratories’. Ideals about autonomy, society, religion, gender, belonging and morality are negotiated in novel ways, technology- and media-related activities inextricably entwined in this.

In this paper, I will reflect on the nature of the interventionist, collaborative fieldwork, and the struggle to be sensitive to-, reflexive about-, and creatively use- the power of sequencing, curating, and editing of the products of our collaborative efforts in the field: What role does the anthropologists’ personal and political ideals play in this understanding of fieldwork and its products and effects? And how does the ‘mutualizing of utopias’ come about? Is it a mutual ‘invention of culture(s)’, to paraphrase Roy Wagner, emerging between the interlocutors and the anthropologist - or how are we to make sense of it?

Toward the "eternal peace" of cultural differences: a pragmatic distinction between multiculturalism and cultural relativism

Author: Gheorghita Geana (Academia Romana)  email

Short Abstract

A key towards the "eternal peace" (in Kantian words) within the world of values might be the adequate understanding of the distinction between multiculturalism (as a diffuse ideology of a cultural conglomerate) and cultural relativism (as a viable working principle of a coherent social system).

Long Abstract

By facilitating migration, the process of globalisation (or Europeanisation - when referring to our continent) encourages the proliferation of the cases of impact between the migrants' native values and the local matricial ones. For centuries, and even millennia, such cases were settled by the rule: "When in Rome behave like the Romans" (in orig. Latin: Si fueris Romae, Romano vivito more). This rule contributed - discretely, but efficiently - to the stability of human societies. In our days, however, the international mobility of human individuals entails a great challenge (often manifested as crisis) to this traditional manner. The challenge is strongly supported by the intimacy's protective ethics of human rights, which has reached in the foreground of the transnational social life. While multiculturality is not by itself a utopian state of paradise, it might come close to such a state of things if - behind the official general formulations - the human wisdom could find concrete solutions of adjusting cultural differences between the native (intimate) and the local (matricial) values and, thus, of avoiding the conflicting potential between them. Conceptually speaking, a key towards this "eternal peace" (in Kantian words) might be the adequate understanding of the distinction between multiculturalism (as a diffuse ideology of a cultural conglomerate) and cultural relativism (as a viable working principle of a coherent social system).

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.