An Unwell World?: Anthropology in a Speculative Mode.
ASA2023: SOAS, University of London, 11 - 14 April 2023
An unwell world? Anthropology in a speculative mode
The idea of a ‘runaway world’ found repeated expression through the work of Edmond Leach and Anthony Giddens, first as an evocation of the tussle between science and god, later as a vivid characterisation of globalisation. Three years into a pandemic, faced with dramatic climate events, new international conflict, profound social inequality, spiralling energy costs, and what has been dubbed a global crisis in mental health, the world is perhaps less ‘runaway’ than fundamentally unwell.
Malaise traverses national borders and crosscuts traditional domains of anthropological analysis—the political, the bodily, the environmental, the psychological, the expressive, the material, the spiritual. As critical scholars of the social and cultural, anthropologists often adopt a diagnostic and descriptive mode of analysis, identifying problems and tracing their sources and effects. But what possibilities for healing—alternative pathways to repair, restoration, redistribution, resolution—might lie dormant in our analyses? What space can we allow for anthropology as a source of future solutions—visions of wellness, whatever the domain and however defined—in addition to critique?
Five broad thematic areas articulate with the overarching question of (un)well-being, whether flourishing, making do, surviving, struggling, declining, or dying: Planet, Habitation, Politics and Governance, Relations, Bodies/Minds. With these themes, we prompted reflection and open discussion on the purpose and purchase of anthropology on a troubled and damaged planet. Focusing on questions of illness and health, well-being and being-unwell, in bodily, institutional, ecological, spiritual, and psychological domains, we invited contributions exploring how anthropological knowledge might envision, anticipate and forge alternative futures.
As a conference, AN UNWELL WORLD was also predicated on the recognition that anthropologists are embedded in and affected by the planetary, political, emotional and bodily forms of malaise we encounter in our research. Consequently, we conceived this event as an opportunity for anthropologists to come together to reflect on our own recent experiences, perhaps most glaringly (but not only) of the pandemic, and explicitly revisit our anthropological practice and priorities in a newly post(?)-pandemic world. Not exactly ‘Anthropology Reset’, but a focused moment to craft the future in terms established through the experience of the last few years. Within the regular conference format there were workshops on personal and collective resilience, self-awareness and finding balance and changing disciplinary epistemologies and methods. These take place in recognition of, and in response to, the experience of anthropologists through the pandemic, emerging climate crisis and accelerating political uncertainty.
In the ‘bottleneck’ of the twentieth-first century, the Anthropocene has taken imaginations and attention. Theories of late- and neo-liberalism and of ‘acceleration’ (Rosa), ‘rebel cities’ (Harvey), ‘overheating’ (Eriksen), ‘frictions’ (Tsing), ‘geontologies’ (Povinelli) and ‘Gaia’ (Latour) crowd the literature. The apocalyptic nomenclature of the discipline almost re-enforces a dystopian La Fin du Monde atmosphere. Do the traditional paradigms, methods and epistemologies of the discipline have any relevance or potential to engage the unwell world? As our field sites slowly disappear under the weight of runaway climate change, and with them the life worlds of our informants, does the discipline have the language and analytical capacity to move beyond critical diagnosis? Does it have a ‘response-ability’ (Haraway) to forge an emancipatory politics, negotiate alternatives and rebuild a habitable planet? Might an anthropology of the beyond ask more of us?
Carbon, energy and water politics dominate the agendas of governments and failing international institutions. New geographies of decolonisation and nationalism allow colonialisms and imperialisms to work through diasporas, infrastructures and financial markets. Acceleration of speed, contraction of space, and new simultaneities are attended by the redrawing of boundaries and borders, and by reinforced attention to standards, quotas and exclusions. The acceleration of mobilities, in differing forms in many parts of the world, has outstripped even the expectations of recent theories of globalisation. How are the boundaries between anthropology and other disciplines blurring or toughening against this changing malaise of a changing world order?
Stand back for a moment and ask, what do anthropologists know about climate change, really? How can alternative understandings of land, water, agriculture, other species and ‘normalcy’ enable us to engage with climate change in careful and productive ways? What ecological challenges are evident, how do they look when positioned against the longue durée and the immediate past and future? What might amelioration look like? What new social and political realities are being formed by climate change policies (as distinct from climate change itself)? Is the political organisation of the globalised world formed in the twentieth century now at odds with what is required? How do ideas from the ground feed our speculative futures?
Among the competing meta-claims of nations, states, greenwashers, sustainability and developmental discourse, and ‘business as usual’, how and where are ideas we can work with to be found? Is the world – fevered and with troubled constitution – shouting at us to stop? Do anthropologists listen? In the case of the term ‘climate change’, should anthropologists understand it as scientific and governmental regimes enframe changes in eco-systems or should we be paying more attention to what is being attributed to ‘climate change?’ How can anthropologists relate to these regimes? How can anthropologists navigate and influence the worlds of discourse makers and narrative weavers? What methods of interrogating the discursive world are at our disposal? Can it be productive for anthropologists to challenge universal (often profit-based) scenarios as the method of attaining climate justice? What alternative modes of climate attribution can anthropologists bring to the forefront of disciplinary as well as political debates?
For a long time now, the city has been seen as the future, the built form of many technological and social utopias. With the future seemingly under threat, what next for the urban world?
The burgeoning interest in the cities of the Global South is characterised by the ‘eschatological evocation of urban apocalypse’ (Gandy): the stereotype of urban dysfunction. How can we redress this one-dimensional generalisation of the pathological city on the brink of collapse - an image aggravated by the pandemic - and shift attention to urban dwellers’ lived realities and their ideas of a liveable city? How can ethnography, and anthropology interacting with other disciplines, contribute to apprehending cities as assemblages of people, ideas, aspirations, networks, organisations, and infrastructural components, not only to diagnose urban ‘sickness’ but to locate extant zones of ‘health’ and speculate on avenues toward wellness?
The pandemic, the triumph of austerity under Late Liberalism, growing authoritarian practices and regimes, climatic effects, the loss of cropland all contribute and are often more pronounced within urban centres. Over-tourism and depopulation of city centres worldwide through the conversion of dwellings into high-price holiday rentals increase the problems. What can anthropologists do to support the growth of just cities with access to equitable housing, basic amenities, affordable healthcare, preservation of aesthetics (cultural artefacts - both tangible and intangible)? What promising initiatives already exist for us to highlight and amplify? Can anthropology provide a pathway or open up guidance towards a just future in urban spaces?
Climate change raises questions about the location and role of cities in producing and governing low carbon futures. Many of the world’s great cities are built by the water. What is to be done: abandon them, move them, rebuild them? As what? As the world aims to rebuild and recover from the pandemic and to recalibrate expectations against rising sea levels, there is an opportunity to influence new city standards toward investing in protecting and promoting wellbeing and tackling inequalities and unsustainable practices, and to engage with and learn from experiments already underway.
What does ethnography bring to the politics of determining and anticipating urban futures? How should anthropologists approach cities as sites of aspirations, intimacies, religiosity, consumerism and the sociality that infrastructure produces? How do we understand cities as sites of both possible disorder and a re-order? In many parts of the world, fantastic experiments are taking place with ‘smart cities’ and technopolises. A frenzy of governmental and corporate research is asking what cities will look like in 2050 - the much-hyped date for Net Zero (in some parts of the world). Dholera in India, Neom and Oxagon in Saudi Arabia, Konza in Kenya, Fujisawa in Japan, Ordos in China are attempts at redefining urban space, perhaps as a form of capitalism rather than expression of civic prosperity. What are new urban forms and philosophies antidotes to? What went wrong with the city that came into being in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? What kind of person inhabits the urban future? What do they do? How do they do it? Who do they do it with and why?
Meanwhile, life goes on in the countryside. What is the future there?
Strong systems of political representation, lively scrutiny of the executive and deep engagement with diverse publics are all vital to a healthy democracy. Appadurai reminds us too that civil society tends to have limited political space to operate in shallow democracies. But the steady deepening of democracy around the world is not just in doubt; democracy itself is in crisis with authoritarianism, nativism, public distrust and entrenched conflicts at an all-time high. If exclusion, misrepresentation and inequality are symptoms of political sickness, governance systems around the world are extremely unwell.
Anthropology brings an interest in the relationships, rituals, processes and contested meanings within political worlds that can enrich our understanding before we rush to treating political sickness. Whether looking at how the state and political institutions are embedded in society, or how specific phenomena (migration, AI, food insecurity, corruption, the aid industry, racism) are entangled with each other, anthropologists have plenty to say about governance at all levels. But difficult questions remain worth asking. How can our research keep up with fast-changing political worlds and how might we compare across domains? What connections can we usefully make between healthy democracy and social, emotional, psychological, embodied and spiritual wellness? What kind of conversations do we need to have with other disciplines to speculate on healing interventions in our excessively confusing and confused political worlds?
Systems of governance intersect in often opaque ways. The Covid-19 pandemic ushered in ‘exceptional’ laws and policies in the name of protecting public health, leading to the implementation of numerous restrictions on mobility, activity and association, along with requirements for evidentiary documentation. Whilst the breadth of these policies may have been novel, containment and surveillance have long been techniques of governing populations deemed suspect (non-citizens, undocumented migrants, refugees, negatively racialised populations). Millions of people are incarcerated across the world, with millions more held in detention centres/camps or involuntarily hospitalised. Just as in pandemic discourse, these carceral spaces are legitimised through claims to their necessity for public well-being, and due to the irrecoverable unwell-being of those contained within them. How might anthropological attention to connections across contexts of spatial governance contribute to a future ‘well’ world?
Beyond the state, collective responses to Covid-19 have revealed vast and diverse systems of governance and administration active in providing information and access to resources. These include neighbourhood associations, civil society organisations, religious bodies, private organisations and various informal and extralegal networks. While such administrative and governance forms might have come into sharper focus in the wake of the pandemic, they also operate in multiple fields in other contexts. What is the significance of such sub-state mechanisms to our understanding of social life in general and the distribution of power in particular? What are their promises and pitfalls? What are the points at which the state might collaborate or be in conflict with them? What might ethnographies of governance and governmentality beyond the state reveal about contests over ‘sovereignty’? How might they point toward a more just future?
The autonomous state is also challenged by climate change: as with the pandemic, the patched-over fissures of state borders and disconnected institutions are being more explicitly felt. With environmental crises proceeding at an unprecedented rate, preparations for population relocation and cross-border cooperation on water, air, and shared landscapes are ever more pressing as necessary adaptations. Yet current trends in politics and governance may point in the opposite direction, and supra- and sub-state efforts struggle to gain purchase. What is the role of anthropologists in exposing relationships between the state and climate change? State level responses to climate-induced border politics can be one place of intervention; in what other arenas might we intervene?
Well before the widespread Covid-era imposition of ‘social distancing’ and the profound rupture to everyday sociality it entailed, social scientists and policymakers were sounding the alarm on a global ‘epidemic of loneliness’. Spurred by late capitalist atomisation of social lives through the dominance of wage-labour regimes and encouraged along by austerity-driven defunding of community institutions and initiatives, opportunities for the myriad forms of basic sociality needed to sustain individual and collective well-being are considerably reduced. Border regimes permeate our social worlds with increasing intensity, shaping the possibilities and impossibilities of neighbourhood intimacies and solidarities along economic, ideological, ethnic, racialised and racializing lines. Suspicion enters the everyday as citizens are called upon to ensure that ‘ineligible’ non-citizens are not able to access education, healthcare, welfare, housing and other support services in the name of economic well-being. During the pandemic’s acute phase, many governments advised residents to report individuals breaking lockdown regulations. In settings worldwide, ordinary individuals are urged to report others who appear to hold ‘extremist’ views that threaten the well-being of ‘the nation’.
Yet, just as anthropologists play a crucial role in archiving the ways that late capitalism, austerity and immigration governance structure everyday social worlds, so can our methods uniquely uncover extraordinary and mundane practices of solidarity, kinship, care and mutual aid within and across new and existing constellations of community. Consider the place of religious life during the pandemic. Around the world, people turned to religious and spiritual groups for support and consolation. When the pandemic led to the cancellation of in-person religious services, many turned to new forms of religion and spirituality, making use of new media (e.g. internet churches and mosques and online prayers) to express their religiosity/spirituality. The WHO imposed distinct rules for religious communities not only to contain the spread of the virus; it also identified them as primary sources of support that needed to be integrated into successful containment of the virus and, for adherents, as a mechanism of collective survival. How might the experience of a global illness help us to rethink essentialised conceptions of religion that emphasise ‘belief’, and shift focus to a praxeological approach that can foreground lived experience, revealing how religion infuses different domains of social life? What can we learn from the example of religious sociality in imagining alternative futures through sustained and sustaining social relations?
Emergent forms of mutual identification and engagement abound, cross-cutting long standing solidarities of nation, ethnicity and religion and providing ample opportunities for anthropologists to think through relations and relatedness as zones of healing and/or ill-being, across domains and scales. If kinship as a cultural system brings with it norms of mutual obligation and responsibility, how are relatedness and its imperatives newly mapped in light of deterritorialised genetic, spiritual, and experiential modes of reckoning ‘kin’? Who is recognized as a member of ‘the family’–of the faithful, the DNA-traced family tree, the nation, the ‘race’, the ideologically familiar, the similarly oppressed—and who is excluded, on what basis, to what effects? To whom are allegiance and obligation required? Who is prioritised when resources are scarce? These questions have implications for the ‘health’ not only of individuals and communities, but the functioning of multiple forms of interaction and cooperation required to sustain human life on an interconnected planet: food systems, transportation networks, financial systems, supply chains and aid streams of all kinds—financial, infrastructural, military, educational, medical. Can ethnographic revelation of such crisscrossing cartographies and logics of (dis)identification, (lack of) obligation, and (mis)trust provide fodder for speculating on alternative futures? What should our role be in highlighting operations of inclusion and exclusion across scales of sociality, for good and for ill, from local institutions and social units to supranational alliances and channels of aid?
The Covid-19 pandemic showed how a non-human, viral actor can intensify the forms of connection (mutuality, kinship and care) and disconnection (stigma, discrimination and deprivation) that shape our social relationships. Anthropologists are in a unique position to investigate the reverberating impacts at community level, but also the ways in which people experience relational disruption in their bodies and minds. Recognizing that the mind is social and relational, rather than locked in the psychology of the individual, trains our focus on the culturally-mediated nature of mental events and anguish. Covid-19 has left persistent forms of bodily stigma and risk aversion, in long Covid and other ‘mysterious’ illnesses (O’Sullivan), in mental health issues, and increase in ‘deaths of despair’ caused by the economic consequences of the pandemic. As the pandemic’s effects intersect with longer histories of exclusion and deprivation, and are exacerbated by environmental destruction, scholars have begun to think about the individual and social body as simultaneously inflamed, injured, immunocompromised, or experiencing new forms of tension.
Yet an unwell world does not render all bodies/minds equally unwell. Increasing climatic crises and public health emergencies reveal uneven distributions of life and death across differently gendered, racialised, classed and (dis)abled bodies. Around the globe, state responses to environmental degradation, extreme weather events and the Covid-19 virus have been underwritten by political economies of value attached to some bodies but not others. In the initial phase of the pandemic, for example, necropolitical logics shaped policies around who would (not) be offered life-saving ventilation treatments, as well as who would (not) be afforded the protection of lockdown. Such cartographies of illness and death overlay other maps of uneven (embodied) experience in our times: poverty, homelessness and inadequate housing, (un)employment, incarceration, (il)legality.
The persistence of collective religious observance and affiliation in the face of such profound inequality demonstrates that religion and spirituality matter more than ever to people around the world, as do affective communities based on common interests, ideological bent, life experiences, and a common search for spaces of care. How can anthropologists address affect, faith, and hope(lessness) in the light of heightened existential uncertainty—future pandemics, climatic changes, population displacement, the breakdown of democracies and rise in nativist and exclusionary regimes? Can matters of bodily health, psyche and spirit be addressed in ways more in line with the current world situation?
As the acuteness of the pandemic wanes, there is opportunity to shape a legacy. What is the role of an anthropology increasingly situated within modern global institutions and networks of care? Is it still primarily to curate vernacular therapies or provide critical descriptions of ‘epistemic injustice’ (Fricker) and medicalised suffering? Or does anthropology find itself, once again, needed in the spaces opened up by scientific and medical uncertainty, perhaps aligned to the invention of alternative therapeutic spaces and the incorporation of varied meanings and ontologies? What does the ethnographic stance of openness and dialogue itself offer in moments of distress and trauma, and can ethnography lend itself to collaborative forgings of wellness beyond institutional models of ‘recovery’? Can metaphors of health and illness be scaled beyond individual bodies and psyches and be applied to families, milieux, environments and whole ecosystems? How do we account for the normative dimensions of these descriptions? What is rendered visible when diagnosing societies, ecosystems and the entire planet as ‘unwell’?