SOCIALITY, MATTER, AND THE IMAGINATION: RE-CREATING ANTHROPOLOGY
The Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth’s 2018 conference was jointly hosted by the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography (SAME) of the University of Oxford, including the Pitt Rivers Museum, and the Department of Social Sciences, Oxford Brookes University. It took place in Oxford, based in and around the Examination Schools, the High Street, Oxford, on 18–21 September 2018. The conference was also supported by All Souls College, Magdalen College, and the Oxford Department of Development Studies.
The conference invited participants from all areas of anthropology and archaeology, and aimed to encourage debate as widely as possible, across socio-cultural, material, visual, biological, forensic, cognitive, evolutionary, and linguistic fields. It turned out to be one of the largest ASA gatherings ever, with over 800 delegates altogether and more than 600 on each of the four days of the conference. There were two keynote lectures and four semi-plenaries corresponding to the four major sub-themes of the conference. The conference included two round tables, a debate, four exhibitions, 3 films, 4 formal meetings, a Tim Ingold book launch, 82 panels, 15 labs exploring innovative ways to do anthropology, and 558 papers. There was an opening reception in the Pitt Rivers Museum (with help from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History), and, on the third evening, a formal dinner in Keble College attended by over 200, followed by drinks and dancing in the college bar.
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 aimed 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.
Keynote and semi-plenary speakers included Melissa Leach (IDS, Sussex), Caitlin DeSilvey (Exeter), Mike Rowlands (UCL), Anna Grimshaw (Emory), Alessandro Duranti (UCLA), and Rita Astuti (LSE). There was also a debate on evolution and morality featuring Oliver Scott Curry (Oxford), Mark Alfano (Delft University of Technology and Australian Catholic University), Soumhya Venkatesan (Manchester), and Jo Cook (UCL). Oliver and Mark proposed the motion that 'morality is fundamentally an evolved solution to problems of social cooperation'. Soumhya and Jo opposed it. There was plenty of time for contributions from the floor before the final vote on the motion.
The text of the debate contributions was published in 2020 in the JRAI. The keynotes and selected other conference presentations were published in the edited volume Re-Creating Anthropology: Sociality, Matter, and the Imagination (Routledge, eds D.N. Gellner & D.P. Martinez) in 2022.
Ian Hodder (Stanford) delivered the Firth Lecture on 'The Paradox of the Long Term: Human Evolution and Entanglement'. For the abstract, click here. Rita Astuti delivered the closing keynote on 21 September. For the abstract, click here.
Contributions to the conference were 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 work of imagination there would be no other forms of cultural work. Click here for more.
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. Click here for more.
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. Click here for more.
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. Click here for more.
The conference organizing committee was:
Jason Danely, Senior Lecturer in the Anthropology of Japan, Oxford Brookes University
David Gellner, Professor of Social Anthropology, Head of Department, SAME (Chair)
Chris Gosden, Professor of European Archaeology, Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford
Elizabeth Hallam, Research Associate, SAME, and Editor of the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
Clare Harris, Professor of Visual Anthropology, SAME; and Curator for Asian Collections, Pitt Rivers Museum
Dan Hicks, Professor of Cotemporary Archaeology in the School of Archaeology and Curator of Archaeology, Pitt Rivers Museum
Catherine Hill, Professor of Anthropology, Oxford Brookes University
Jeremy MacClancy, Professor of Anthropology, Oxford Brookes University
Laura Rival, Professor of Anthropology of Development, Oxford Department of International Development
Ramon Sarró, Associate Professor in the Social Anthropology of Africa, SAME
David Zeitlyn, Professor of Social Anthropology, SAME