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Department of Social Anthropology

Boats from Above, Malawi

Political Life, Crisis, and Possibilities

This research cluster focuses on political praxis at a moment where the world is undergoing unprecedented crises on virtually every front: economic, ecological, and humanitarian. What defines access, membership, and participation in different collectives? How are institutions created, and how do institutions create subjectivities? What is the meaning of power, and related terms such as authority, equality, and exclusion? In brief, how do people across the world understand ‘politics’? Arising from long histories of imperial and colonial expropriation, the meanings of ‘power’ and ‘politics’ are freshly at stake at so many levels and scales: national but also transnational; local, forest and city-based; transhuman, networked or distributed; defined on the basis of territory, rights or in ways that surpass any of these. This cluster also offers a space for investigating the processes and meanings of social change, alternations and political transition and the ways history and violence sediment in memory and subjectivity.

Political Life, Crisis, and Possibilities continued

Environment, Infrastructure, and Care

This research cluster focuses on how humans live within the accelerating feedback loops of environment and infrastructure in the Anthropocene, and explores their shifting possibilities for care and wellbeing. Centuries of capitalist-colonial development now spur extreme weather that puts pressure on transport, communication, and energy networks, creating new geographies of disconnection and vulnerability. In turn, some reimagine nature itself as infrastructure—as carbon sink or refugia—while infrastructural constraints are required to recreate or model natural conditions, as in lab and field experiments. Such convergence prompts the emergence of new behaviourist, managerial, and design imaginaries around risk and event, as well as new ethical imperatives towards care, maintenance, and conservation. It assumes turbulence and resilience, not stability, and induces a range of knowledge practices, from embodied intimations of harm to data-rich apparatuses of monitoring and surveillance. All of these are prime themes for anthropologists to track. Such practices demand thinking across spatiotemporal scales, from the micro-organismic to the planetary, and invite a range of conceptual and methodological orientations. Against this background, this research cluster asks how meshworks of law, science, medicine, forests, mountains, grids, rivers—and many other vital systems besides—generate overlapping rhythms and life cycles, mediate sovereignty and livelihoods, and generally structure the contours of collective life. It tracks struggles over access to these vital systems, the sacrifice zones they create, and the various distributions (racialized, gendered, speciated, inspirited) of care and kin they materialise.

Environment, Infrastructure, and Care continued

Materiality, Knowledge, and Media

This research cluster focuses on the materiality of signs and the semiotics of matter. It asks how we materialise, share and transform knowledge, meaning and symbols through media, understood in the widest sense - from books, radio and film, through social media and other virtual modes of engagement, to material items of mediation such as valuables, houses or bodies. Media practices shape social and cultural life, mark out spaces of memory and forgetting, contribute to assembling and disassembling publics of various kinds. Research undertaken under this cluster also focuses on the role of more-than-human actors - objects, animals, plants, landscapes - in the mediation of knowledge, memory and affective states. This cluster offers a space for interrogating cultures of expertise, including anthropological expertise, attending to knowledge-making itself as a material process, where methodology and theory meet affect, ethics and politics in complex and ever-changing ways.

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Morality, Subjectivity, and Emotion

This research cluster takes up issues of self, personhood and ethics and explores them in relation to both subjectivity and social action. Focal topics include cross-culturally diverse understandings of inner awareness and self-cultivation, diverse notions of virtue, flourishing and well-being, the motivational and structuring force of values, social practices of accountability and conceptions of justice, and the role of creativity and emotion in fostering people’s understandings of themselves and their social worlds. Research explores how political and economic structures shape and are shaped by people’s intimate concerns, and considers how such concerns are informed by and feed into various means of public expression such as ritual and religion, art, and activism, as well as how they unfold across the life-course. Work in this area is deeply informed by engagements with philosophy and psychology, and brings that scholarship into dialogue with vernacular understandings across all of the topics studied. Research on ethics, subjectivity and emotion have contributed in recent years to a profound rethinking of anthropological theories of practice and accounts of the nature of sociocultural life. Our work in this cluster aims to continue to make contributions along such inter-disciplinary lines.

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Economy, Work, and Social Reproduction

This research cluster focuses on the unique insights that anthropological perspectives can generate about peoples’ engagements with economy. By considering the complex processes that surround how humans produce, distribute, exchange and consume, our work addresses some of the most pressing social issues of our time, such as: human engagements with energy and material resources; experiences of inequality and economic crisis; changing forms of work and employment and their attendant political struggles. The department is home to a dynamic community of scholars conducting research in diverse ethnographic contexts. Our work is informed by efforts to relate matters of economy to broader human experiences of gender, kinship, class, ethnicity, nation, and identity. We are interested in how people understand the relationship between economic and social values, and in how inequalities of economic power relate to the way that people conceive and structure their social lives, and what they do to make life better.

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