ASA18: Sociality, matter, and the imagination: re-creating Anthropology

18-21 September 2018, Examination Schools, University of Oxford

Theme: Sociality, matter, and the imagination: re-creating Anthropology

One of the major debates within anthropology broadly defined is the question of how to bridge approaches primarily concerned with the social, and those primarily focused on the material, the physical, or the biological. Much recent anthropology, from a variety of theoretical perspectives, seeks to overcome artificial conceptual divisions, either by proposing new (often hybrid) ontologies or simply by pursuing problems that challenge conventional boundaries. ASA2018 aims to address this key question directly. If sociality, matter, and the imagination are reconsidered from multiple perspectives across the discipline, how might we renew and re-create anthropology? What kinds of theoretical, methodological, and ethical concerns are raised by this potential re-creation?  Working with a very broad definition of ‘the material’—potentially including linguistic, biological, genetic, neurological, environmental, and evolutionary factors—the conference aims to advance debates on sociality and matter, the imagination and creativity, and therefore on what it is to be human in a rapidly changing world.

Contributions to the conference will be organized according to the following four themes:

Theme 1: Language and Imagination

Many philosophers argue that the imagination plays a fundamental role in the very conditions of possibility of thinking. Likewise, many anthropological approaches have assumed that without the works of imagination there would be no other forms of cultural work.Imagination underlies politics, ritual, materialities, language, and, of course, art and creativity. Imagination is one of the loci where anthropologies meet, and where serious dialogue must take place. From cognitivist sciences to the anthropology of art, of politics, of religions, of kinship, etc., understanding the capacity of humans (and perhaps non-human primates too) to create potential scenarios is a key part of what we find in the field and a key part of the representations we document in our writings. What are the effects of imagination in life and in anthropology?
Other approaches might consider mind and language in their material manifestations. Social life and the environment work on and are shaped by humans and their languages. Local ideas of how languages and thought relate to the world may challenge academic theorization. Do we need new comparative approaches for the study of radical variation?

Theme 2: Creative Bodies

The human body has long been recognized as a site where the biological, social, and the material converge. Bodies are creative in the sense that they not only grow and reproduce other bodies, but through performances and gestures, they inscribe, manipulate, and communicate ethnicity and gender, health and sickness, vulnerability and resistance. At the same time, bodies remain sites for the production of inequality and alterity. Proliferating images represent and mediate bodily experiences in diverse ways, and bodies are increasingly mobile, distributed, and virtual. Furthermore, developments in technologies – whether applied to bodies before birth, in life, or after death – are recreating both human physicality and the ways in which it is possible to imagine it.
We invite panels to explore questions relating to bodies, their materiality, and their imagined dimensions. How are imaginative processes grounded in embodied action, and how are bodies enmeshed in wider social and ecological relationships? How are shifting relations between the human and the non-human affecting bodies, and indeed redefining the 'human'?

Theme 3: Environmental Imaginations

Earlier generations of anthropologists tended to focus on human environmental adaptability in a wide range of ecosystems and climates. More recent anthropological research has instead prioritized the spatial possibilities afforded by deterritorialization and globalization at many scales. ‘Nature’, which has always functioned as a repository of social ideas and political values, is being recast through a multiplicity of global environmental change discourses. The landscapes that people inhabit embody forms of agency beyond full human control, and anthropologists are increasingly urged to engage in interdisciplinary work. What people actually mean or desire when they talk about stability and/or transformation has become much more contingent.
Is environmental change limiting the human imagination, or are people using their imagination to adapt to the changing climate? Where weather extremes are already affecting livelihoods and ecological practices, what contests and transformations are they triggering? If place and mobility are mutually constitutive (mobility everywhere depends upon dwelling in specific places), what movements will take place on a rapidly changing earth, and what dwelling projects will succeed in an increasingly uncertain atmosphere? We invite contributions on the roles that ethnographic knowledge and anthropological imagination continue to play in an era bound to involve fraught politicized disputes about ways to live with environmental change.

Theme 4: Transformation and Time

How do sociality, matter, and the imagination transform over time? Whether addressing short- or long-term processes, anthropologists and archaeologists are confronted with questions relating to the temporal nature of the phenomena they analyse. As social relations form and change over time, how are these shifts registered and expressed in material terms? In what ways do material objects emerge, stabilise, and then disintegrate or re-form? And how does time figure in imaginative processes?
In relation to this theme we welcome panels that explore temporalities and transformations in social life, material formations, and acts of imagining. How is the past reconstructed and the future predicted through material practices? What kinds of institutions promote change or aim to preserve the present? How do the political, ethical, and economic aspects of social, material, and imaginative transformations develop and play out?

You can read the abstracts of the theme keynotes here. Read the call for panels here.