ASA2020 University of St Andrews, St Andrews 24-27 August 2020
Who is responsible? Where does responsibility lie? Between whom? Towards what? Who shares responsibility and upon whose authority is responsibility named? These are questions that anthropologists regularly encounter both in the field and in the archive, in their relations with bureaucracy, and with regard to anthropology’s multiple and diverse audiences. These are also questions, we are told, that are pressingly contemporary in nature. Talk about an era of ‘post-truth’ or about the predicament of expert knowledge, alongside talk about the challenges of the Anthropocene and a crisis of austerity, all fold into particular discussions of responsibility. This conference aims to unpack and explore the scope and scale of responsibility as both an emic and etic category for anthropology, to ask how responsibility is recognised and invoked in the world, what relations it draws upon, and how it comes to define notions of the person, institutional practices, ways of knowing and modes of evaluation. What are the contexts that substantiate particular meanings of responsibility, prioritising some potentials of our use of this word while perhaps silencing or muting others?
The category of responsibility has a long genealogy within anthropological scholarship. It has been central, for instance, to historical debates about sorcery and witchcraft, kinship, and the organization of economic and political life. It also surfaces in intriguing ways in a number of contemporary debates within the discipline, as well as in relation to anthropologists’ collaboration with other disciplines, and the ways in which anthropology is applied in fields like development, medicine, and humanitarian response. As a category that unsettles and at the same time entangles political, ethical and epistemological questions, responsibility faces anthropological theory, ethnographic practice, collaborative research, and applied engagement with key challenges.
Given the diversity of deployments of responsibility as a category good to think with inside the discipline and as a category operationalized at multiple scales in the world, this conference asks what anthropology might say about responsibility in the round. It also asks how that reflection might productively play back on what we mean when we talk about the ‘responsibility of anthropology’ or the responsibility of anthropologists to specific others. Should anthropology be held responsible for the knowledge it produces? Why and on what terms? Is it necessarily correct to expect that anthropologists have responsibilities? And if so, who defines what they are? Is irresponsibility necessarily problematic? What responsibilities might anthropology or anthropologists demand of others? And has anthropology reached its limits of its “responsible image” (as both translator and provider of qualitative analysis) in light of current indigenous critiques of ethnography?
The realisation that we find ourselves in the midst of the dying off of species and the destruction of ecosystems at a level that has only occurred five times in the last half a billion years recognises contemporary political and economic life as a gouge in the future fossil record. What does it mean to live at such a point of cataclysm? What is the role of anthropology in debates about the climate crisis and the Anthropocene? On wider reading, the extinction trope can be extended to fields of salvage anthropology, theoretical considerations of emptiness, apocalyptic and utopian visions of both past and future, the realm of speculative fiction, and multifaceted studies of a world in crisis. At the same time, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, a reawakened spirit of the end-times enters mass consciousness in movements about the climate crisis, asking whether humans will themselves end up on the list of disappearing species. How is anthropological responsibility articulated and challenged in the face of catastrophe and catastrophism? Does the scale of anticipated calamity render questions of responsibility in a human-centred discipline moot, or does make them more urgent than ever?
2. Who Speaks and for Whom?
At least since the 1980s, anthropologists have discussed our ethical responsibility to open our debates to the critical contributions of interlocutors. Yet our discipline has failed to implement the institutional transformations that this project demands. As writers and audiences we reproduce a view of anthropological knowledge as the result of the genius of the ethnographer. This view of anthropology is no longer sustainable. In the digital era many of our subjects are developing creative means of communicating their own lives to audiences of their own choosing. Yet not everybody is able to speak up and not everybody who speaks is listened to. Meanwhile collaborative approaches—which promise to deliver decolonised forms of scholarship—face their own methodological and ethical challenges. Writing robust arguments in accessible ways is undoubtedly problematic. What is the future of academic anthropology in this context of proliferating voices and newly emerging silences? How do we envision our responsibilities and how do we examine, and participate within, the conflicting responsibilities of our interlocutors and our collaborators? What novel tensions do our changing roles and relationships generate?
Who are anthropologists responsible to when they provide evidence for other than ethnographic purposes? What role does anthropology play in evidence-based decisions that impact the societies we work with and what are the responsibilities that accompany this role? Such questions have long troubled what was once known as the field of applied anthropology. With the intensification of collaboration between anthropologists and other disciplines a range of new questions has emerged beyond the dichotomy of academic/applied research: What are the epistemological, ethical and political implications of translating ethnographic data into evidence for other disciplines? Do all parties share the same understanding of what constitutes evidence and its value in debates and research? How does anthropology benefit from its own ‘responsible’ image as a provider of qualitative, ethnographic evidence? To what extent can recent turns to archival or design-based research challenge the ways in which anthropology has invested on and accrued evidential value? What is the goal of this research and how does it differ to or complement historical research and its mode of relating to evidence? Do anthropologists approach the archive with a sense of responsibility to historical truth? Or are the ethnographer’s ethics and sensibility transferred to the archive, so that responsibility is directed to subjects’ voice and experience instead?
4. Health, Disease and Wellbeing
Emerging global challenges and existential risks like antimicrobial resistance and the climate crisis, but also media-normalised crises like obesity, diabetes and cancer underline the need to approach health and wellbeing from more-than-human perspectives. Whether concerning One Health or the microbiome, such symbiotic approaches necessitate different ways of being in the world, and at the same time a radical shift in anthropological perspectives. What new forms of responsibility arise from these perspectives both in the field and in the discipline? How can ethnography as a method cope with global complexities in the field of health, disease and wellbeing? And to what extent does anthropology need to embrace other methods to engage with these challenges? What are the public health consequences of the integration of ethnographic data in clinical or epidemiological models? What are the normative implications and epistemic complications of integrating ethnography into disease control policy and practice? What is the responsibility of anthropology towards Global Health, if not that of translation and cultural contextualisation?
5. Morality and Legality
The domain of the legal has long been the way that anthropologists thought about how responsibilities are made explicit. It has also been a way to talk about the scale of responsibility: whether we speak of the responsibilities between family members or between states and their citizens, these have been describable in terms of jural forms that govern what it is people owe one another. Two recent phenomena have complicated this picture. In anthropology, interests in theorising the good, the ethical, and the moral have generated an aesthetics of right action; do they have anything to do with law, or are they not only extra-legal but anti-legal in nature? And in parallel, the activist movements of the contemporary era – from Occupy and Black Lives Matter to #MeToo and Extinction Rebellion – have re-infused the political worlds in which law and the legal are generated with a sense of urgency. Do these phenomena point to the necessity of developing both an anthropology of morals and a moral anthropology that engages with the ethical demands of the world in which it is conducted? But ethics and law exist in a dynamic relationship wherein one is both generative and limiting of action within the terms of the other. Is it possible to speak of ethical responsibilities which do not have, in the background, an anticipatory legal form?
6. Irresponsibility and Failure
Are there generative consequences to irresponsibility? What is the relationship between failure and responsibility? This theme invites panel abstracts that examine irresponsibility and failure as emic categories, widely encountered in the field, and which can provide a basis for diverse forms of social explanation. We invite participants to consider the location of systemic failures in the world and to consider how their attribution may intersect with the existential experiences of failing, as a society or a person. What does it mean to be irresponsible and who determines when and how irresponsibility has taken place? How do processes of accounting and linguistic and cultural prompts by which the identification of failure or irresponsibility lead to judgement or blame, or the relocation of responsibilities? How might we consider the extent to which it may be important for anthropology to resist the contemporary moralisms of responsibility, and to strive for irresponsibility or productive failure?